The distance between Earth and Mars is shrinking to its smallest in more than two years. On March 3 Mars will be in opposition to the sun, providing excellent opportunities for viewing the Red Planet.
The celestial event known as Mars opposition occurs whenever Earth passes between the sun and the Red Planet, approximately once every two years and two months. This makes Mars visible opposite the sun in the Earth’s sky, which is a great time to view the Red planet because the sun’s rays illuminate the full face of Mars. Because the two planets’ orbits regularly bring them close together, it also provides a good time to launch Mars missions such as the recent Mars Science Laboratory.
Mars and Earth will actually be at their closest on March 5, so you have a decent chance to catch the Red Planet anytime in the next few weeks.
How to Watch
• To spot Mars with your naked eye, look for a bright orange-red dot in the eastern sky shortly after the sun sets. The planet, which can be distinguished from stars because it doesn’t twinkle, will rise to its highest position in the southern sky around midnight.
• Those with a modest-sized telescope should have good views of Mars’ surface features, including its white polar caps.
• Anyone without access to a telescope can catch a live feed of the opposition event from the Slooh Space Camera on March 3 starting at 8:00 p.m. PST. Come back tomorrow evening to our site for an embedded video from Slooh. The Slooh show will feature commentary by the organization’s Patrick Paolucci, Astronomy Magazine columnist Bob Berman, and some special guests.
With the planets separated by 62 million miles, this will actually be one of the least close of the regular close-ups that Mars and Earth have experienced in recent times. The closest approach in almost 60,000 years occurred in 2003, when the planets were just 35 million miles apart. Earth and Mars won’t break that record for 275 more years, in 2287.
The night sky’s cosmic show will keep going for the rest of the month, with a half dozen bright objects to keep watch for. On Mar. 13, Jupiter and Venus – the second and third brightest objects in the night sky — will appear a tantalizingly close distance from one another. As well, Mercury should be visible shortly after sunset near the horizon while Saturn can be spotted in the east just after midnight.