Mars will shine especially bright in the sky tonight as the Red Planet makes its closest approach to Earth in 17 years
- Mars will be about 34 million miles away from the Earth and visible tonight
- It will rise in the sky at about 7pm and be at peak visibility just after midnight
- It is closer than usual to the Earth due to the two planets differing orbits
- It will appear slightly reddish in colour and can be seen to the right of the Moon
Mars will be closer to Earth tonight than at any point in the past 17 years tonight and will be the second brightest object in the night sky after the Moon, astronomers say.
The Red Planet is at its point of opposition, with the Earth passing directly between it and the Sun and will appear ‘effectively as a full Mars’, according to NASA.
It will be visible with the naked eye and appear slightly reddish in colour and looking through a telescope should allow you to spot surface features and polar ice caps.
From the UK the planet will rise above the horizon at about 19:00 BST but will be best viewed after midnight – ideally in an area with a clear sky and minimal light pollution.
To view Mars in the night sky you should look to the right of the Moon and towards the constellation Pisces – it will be the second brightest object after the Moon.
‘Simply go outside and look up and, depending on your local weather and lighting conditions, you should be able to see Mars,’ NASA wrote in a blog post.
The Red Planet is at its point of opposition, with the Earth passing directly between it and the Sun and will appear ‘effectively as a full Mars’, according to NASA
It will be visible with the naked eye and appear slightly reddish in colour and looking through a telescope should allow you to spot surface features and polar ice caps
Mars reaches its closest point to Earth every two years, but not every close approach is equal, with distances varying by millions of miles even during the closest points.
The two planets aren’t on an exactly circular orbit – so every 15 or 17 years the gap gets a little bit closer – this year Mars will come 38.6 million miles from Earth.
This is the closest approach since 2003 when Mars was 34 million miles away – the closest in 60,000 years. It won’t be that close again until 2287.
The next time Mars and the Earth will be as close as it is this year will be in 2035 – around the time NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Red Planet.
‘If Earth and Mars had perfectly circular orbits, their minimum distance would always be the same. However, they have elliptical (egg-shaped) paths,’ NASA said.
‘In addition, gravitational tugging by planets constantly changes the shape of their orbits a little bit. Giant Jupiter especially influences the orbit of Mars.
‘The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted with respect to each other.’
This is why the distances can vary between the two planets by millions of miles.
‘When Mars and Earth are close to each other, Mars appears very bright in our sky. It also makes it easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye,’ NASA wrote.
‘The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years’ and the next close approach is in 2035.
The orbits of Mars and Earth are not exactly circular and so at certain points the two planets are closer together than at other times – including this year and again in 2035
When Mars rises in the sky tonight, EarthSky reports that it will appear like a ‘resplendent red star in the east every evening and in the west before dawn’.
‘Mars is easily the brightest starlike object to light up the evening sky’.
‘Generally speaking, Mars is at its brightest in 2020 throughout the month of October 2020. It is now shining more brilliantly than the planet Jupiter, and it’s not very often that Mars outshines the king planet,’ EarthSky added.
There are three spaceships from Earth currently on their way to Mars – NASA’s Perseverance rover, China’s Mars lander and orbiter and the UAE Hope Mars probe.
They are all due to arrive at the Red Planet in February 2021 and will provide Earth-based scientists with a plethora of new information.
NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s after first landing on the Moon
Mars has become the next giant leap for mankind’s exploration of space.
But before humans get to the red planet, astronauts will take a series of small steps by returning to the moon for a year-long mission.
Details of a the mission in lunar orbit have been unveiled as part of a timeline of events leading to missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Nasa has outlined its four stage plan (pictured) which it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at he Humans to Mars Summit held in Washington DC yesterday. This will entail multiple missions to the moon over coming decades
In May 2017, Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans at Nasa, outlined the space agency’s four stage plan that it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars, as well as its expected time-frame.
Phase one and two will involve multiple trips to lunar space, to allow for construction of a habitat which will provide a staging area for the journey.
The last piece of delivered hardware would be the actual Deep Space Transport vehicle that would later be used to carry a crew to Mars.
And a year-long simulation of life on Mars will be conducted in 2027.
Phase three and and four will begin after 2030 and will involve sustained crew expeditions to the Martian system and surface of Mars.