Mars At Closest Point To Earth in 11 Years Today

Mars in all its red-hued glory. Image: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

If you have a telescope, (What?! You don’t have one?) you’re in for a visual treat tonight. Mars will be at its closest point to Earth in 11 years today. This event is worth checking out, whether with a telescope, astronomy binoculars, or online.

While today is when Mars is at its closest, you actually have a couple weeks to check this out, as the distance between Mars and Earth gradually becomes greater and greater. Today, Mars is 76 million kilometers (47.2 million miles) away, but up until June 12th it will still be no further than 77 million kilometers (48 million miles) away.

The furthest Mars can be from Earth is 401 million kilometers (249 million miles), when the two planets are on the opposite side of the Sun from each other.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sfPjOtzLn4[/embed]

For most of us with backyard ‘scopes, it’s difficult to make out much detail. You can see Mars, and at the most you can make out a polar cap. But it’s still fascinating knowing you’re looking at another planet, one that was totally unknowable for most humans who preceded us. A planet that we have rovers on, and that we have several craft in orbit around.

If you don’t have a scope, have no fear. There will be a flood of great astro-photos of Mars in the next few days. There are also options for live streaming feeds from powerful Earth-based telescopes.

The last time Mars was this close to Earth was 2005. A couple years before, the distance shrank to 55.7 million km (34.6 million miles.) That was the closest Mars and Earth have been in several thousand years. In 2018, the two planets will be nearly that close again.

This event is often called “opposition”, but it’s actually more correctly called “closest approach.” Opposition occurs a couple weeks before closest approach, when Mars is directly opposite the Sun.

But whether you call it opposition, or closest approach, the event itself is significant for more than just looking at it. Missions to Mars are planned when the two planets are close to each other. This reduces mission times drastically.

Mars Express, the mission being conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) was launched in 2003, when the two planets were as close to each other as they’ve been in thousands of years. All missions to Mars can’t be so lucky, but they all strive to take advantage of the orbital cycles of the two planets, by nailing launch dates that work in our favour.

As for finding Mars in the night sky, it’s not that difficult. If you have clear skies where you are, Mars will appear as a bright, fire-yellow star.
“Just look southeast after the end of twilight, and you can’t miss it,” says Alan MacRobert, a senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, in a statement. “Mars looks almost scary now, compared to how it normally looks in the sky.”

Although Mars is the closest thing in the sky to Earth right now, other than the Moon, it isn’t the brightest thing in the night sky. That honour is reserved for Jupiter, even though it’s ten times further away. Jupiter is twenty times larger in diameter than Mars, so it reflects much more sunlight and appears much brighter. (Obviously, everything in the night sky pales in comparison to the Moon.)

The reason for such a variation in distances between the planets lies in their elliptical orbits around the Sun. There’s a great video showing how their orbits change the distance between the two planets, here.

If you don’t have a telescope, you can still check Mars out. Go to slooh.com to check out live feeds from a proper telescope.

The post Mars At Closest Point To Earth in 11 Years Today appeared first on Universe Today.

Hubble Telescope Zooms In On Mars

Mars snapped with the Hubble Space Telescope on May 12 just days before opposition. Credit: NASA/ESA

We’re in store for an exciting weekend as the Earth and Mars get closer to each other than at any time in the last ten years. To take advantage of this special opportunity, the Hubble Space Telescope, normally busy eyeing remote galaxies, was pointed at our next door neighbor to capture this lovely close-up image.

As Universe Today writer David Dickinson described in his excellent Mars guide, the planet reaches opposition on Sunday morning May 22. That’s when the planet will be directly opposite the Sun in the sky and rise in the east around the same time the Sun sets in the west. Earth sits squarely in between. Opposition also marks the planet’s closest approach to Earth, so that Mars appears bigger and brighter in the sky than usual. A perfect time for detailed studies whether through both amateur and professional telescopes.

On May 12, Hubble took advantage of this favorable alignment and turned its gaze towards Mars to take an image of our rusty-hued neighbor, From this distance the telescope could see Martian features as small as 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) across. The image shows a sharp, natural-color view of Mars and reveals several prominent geological features, from smaller mountains and erosion channels to immense canyons and volcanoes.

The orange area in the center of the image is Arabia Terra, a vast upland region. The landscape is densely cratered and heavily eroded, indicating that it could be among the oldest features on the planet.

South of Arabia Terra, running east to west along the equator, is the long dark feature named Sinus Sabaeus that terminates in a larger, dark blob called and Sinus Meridiani. These darker regions are covered by bedrock from ancient lava flows and other volcanic features. An extended blanket of clouds can be seen over the southern polar cap where it’s late winter. The icy northern polar cap has receded to a comparatively small size because it’s now late summer in the northern hemisphere.

So the question now is how much will you see as we pull up alongside the Red Planet this weekend? With the naked eye, Mars looks like a fiery “star” in the head of Scorpius the scorpion not far from the similarly-colored Antares, the brightest star in the constellation. It’s unmistakable. Even through the haze it caught my eye last night, rising in the southeast around 10 o’clock with its signature hue.

Through a 4-inch or larger telescope, you can see limb hazes/clouds and prominent dark features such as Syrtis Major, Utopia, clouds over Hellas, Mare Tyrrhenum (to the west of Syrtis Major) and Mare Cimmerium (west of M. Tyrrhenum).

These features observers across the America will see this week and early next between about 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time. As Mars rotation period is 37 minutes longer than Earth’s, these markings will gradually rotate out of view, and we’ll see the opposite hemisphere in the coming weeks. You can use the map to help you identify particular features or Sky & Telescope’s handy Mars Profiler to know which side of the planet’s visible when.

To top off all the good stuff happening with Mars, the Full Flower Moon will join up with that planet, Saturn and Antares Saturday night May 21 to create what I like to call a “diamond of celestial lights” visible all night. Don’t miss it!

Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will offer up two online Mars observing sessions in the coming week, on May 22 and 30, starting at 5 p.m. CDT (22:00 UT). Yet another opportunity to get acquainted with your inner Mars.

The post Hubble Telescope Zooms In On Mars appeared first on Universe Today.

Jupiter and the Full Snow Moon Come Together In a Beautiful Conjunction Tonight

The Full Moon celebrates Jupiter’s coming opposition by accompanying the bright planet in a beautiful conjunction tonight. Even last night Jupiter and the Moon were close enough to attract attention. Tonight they’ll be even more striking. Two reasons for that. The Moon is full this evening and will have crept within 41/2° of the planet. They’ll rise together and […]