Mars will light up the night sky as it comes closest to Earth on October 6 when it’s 38.6 million miles away
Stargazers and space enthusiasts might think of simply looking up at the sky on the night of October 6, and depending on their local weather and lighting conditions, they could get to see Mars. The reason: the Red Planet will be closer to Earth this week than at any other time for another 15 years. Tuesday, October 6 is when Mars makes its closest approach to Earth: it will be approximately 38.6 million miles away from our planet.
Close Approach is when Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the Sun. When Mars and Earth are close to each other, Mars appears very bright in our sky, and it also makes it easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye. The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years. The planet will be at its brightest throughout most of October this year. Mars’ close approach happens about every 26 months, and the next one is on December 8, 2022, according to NASA. Many Mars missions have taken advantage of the close distance to visit the Red Planet.
“Mars close approach is October 6, 2020. That is the point in Mars’ orbit when it comes closest to Earth and this time at about 38.6 million miles (62.07 million kilometers) from our planet. Mars will be visible for much of the night in the southern sky and is at its highest point at about midnight. This time of excellent Mars viewing coincides with opposition when Mars is directly on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun. This lineup happens about every two years,” explains NASA. It adds, “During this opposition, Mars and Earth are closest to each other in their orbits. That means Mars is at its brightest, so go out and take a look. Mars will become fainter as Mars and Earth travel farther away from each other in their orbits around the Sun.”
According to Earthsky.org, for the continental US and Canada, Mars’ closest approach comes on October 6 at 10 am EDT, 9 am CDT, 8 am MDT, 7 am PDT, 6 am Alaskan Time and at 4 am Hawaiian Time. “Of course, these moments are fleeting as both Earth and Mars move in their orbits around the sun. Mars is out almost all night long now. It looks like a bright reddish ‘star,’ shining with a steadier light than the true stars. You can see it easily with the eye alone in the east every evening, and in the west before dawn,” it adds.
However, close is a relative term since the minimum distance from Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles or 54.6 million kilometers. “However, that doesn’t happen very often. Not all close encounters are equal. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years! It won’t be that close again until the year 2287,” say scientists.
Next week, Earth will swing between Mars and the sun. This event, called Mars opposition, will take place on October 13, when Mars and the Sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth. NASA describes the opposition as “effectively a full Mars.” “From our perspective on our spinning world, Mars rises in the east just as the Sun sets in the west. Then, after staying up in the sky the entire night, Mars sets in the west just as the Sun rises in the east. Since Mars and the Sun appear on opposite sides of the sky, we say that Mars is in opposition,” explains NASA.
If Earth and Mars followed perfectly circular orbits, the opposition would be as close as the two planets could get. But because planetary orbits are elliptical, not all oppositions are the same. “An opposition can occur anywhere along Mars’ orbit. Every 15 or 17 years, opposition occurs within a few weeks of Mars’ perihelion, the point in its orbit when it is closest to the Sun. This year, Mars opposition occurs on October 13,” say astronomers. It will be a while until the next opposition brings Mars even closer, and that will not occur until September 2035, when the planet will be 35.4 million miles (56.9 million km) away.