Mars is the closest it has come to Earth in 11 years
Mars, the red planet, has fascinated humanity for centuries. We have observed it through telescopes, imagined what sort of civilisations might exist there, sent robots to explore the surface and rescued Matt Damon from it (at least in the movies.) Currently Mars is in opposition for the next month, which means it is the closest it has been to the Earth in 11 years.
This month is the best time in 11 years to observe Mars
Earth and Mars are both orbiting the sun. They travel at different speeds, so sometimes they can be far apart on opposites of the Sun. At that time Mars can be up to 225 million kilometres away from the Earth. When Mars is in opposition it is on the same side of the sun as Earth and very close by. In fact it will be as little as 75.3 Million kilometres away.
The distance between Earth and mars from 2003-2018
The term opposition refers to the fact that Mars is on the opposite side of the Earth to the Sun. This means it should be observable most of the night from dusk.
Opposition generally occurs a little over once every two years. As the orbits of Earth and Mars are slightly tilted in different directions, so just how close Mars and Earth will come vaires. This opposition is the closest in 11 years, but the closest Mars can come to Earth is as 54.6 kilometres.
Mars will be objectively larger and brighter. In fact Mars in May and June will be several times larger and brighter than it was in January. It will be even brighter than Jupiter, which is normally brighter than Mars. When you look for Mars in the sky with the naked eye, it will be more noticeable. However it will still just appear as a bright dot.
With Mars so close it is the ideal time for amateur astronomers to observe mars through a telescope. Even a small telescope will be enough to make out the disc of Mars. It is also the ideal time to try and find your local astronomy club's open days to have the chance to look through a better telescope. With even a moderate amateur telescope you will be able to make out several features on Mars including the polar ice caps.
Spotting Mars is not too difficult. It will appear as a red dot in the sky and being a planet, a careful observer will notice that it looks a little different to other stars. With Mars being in opposition, that is, on the other side of Earth from the sun, Mars will come up in the East as the sun sets.
You can also download several astronomy apps that will help you find Mars at night as it moves across the night sky as the Earth rotates.
Great article Roy. Looking at the planets is fascinaating. My husband and I visited the Charleville Cosmos Centre last year and saw Saturn with its rings clearly distinguisable through the telescopes there. We also saw the sun through telescopes there and were able to see sun spots and solar flares.