Perhaps you’ve noticed a ruddy, star-like beacon rising in the east at night. That’s the planet Mars and it’s been steadily growing bigger and brighter the past few months. Skywatchers are now watching the heavens with anticipation as the Red Planet heads for a close encounter with Earth later this week. First, tonight, the27th it reaches its closest point to Earth, passing within 99 million km and offering backyard astronomers their best views until 2014.
Two days later, on January 29, Mars will reach opposition – risias an added bonus for skywatchers on the night of it’s opposition Mars will pair up with the full Moon, gliding together across the night sky – separated by only 6 degrees – about 12 full moon disks apart.
As the two planets slowly converge along their orbits, earthbound telescopes have begun resolving ever finer details on the disk of Mars. You can see the round disk of the planet through binoculars and a small telescope about 5 to 6 inches will show details like the Martian South polar cap and other surface features.
Mars makes a close pass by Earth every 2 years and while this planetary encounter is not the tightest (2003 opposition was only 56 million km), our neighboring world is easy to spot even with the naked eye. When you see Mars rising above the eastern horizon after sunset this week, just think that its distinctive orange-hue is due to the sunlight relfecting off the iron-rich Martian deserts.
Also wrote a small article on this for National Geographic
Tags: Mars, opposition
Posted in Planets, Solar System | 166 Comments »