Jimmy Westlake: Earth-Mars close encounter
May 16, 2016
Night owls and early risers might have noticed recently a dazzling orange object shining low in the southern sky in the hours near midnight. It's the planet Mars, and it is headed for a close approach to Earth later this month.
If the planet Mars were to look in its rearview mirror right now, it would see the Earth zooming up from behind. It takes 780 days, about 26 months, for the faster-moving Earth to gain a lap on Mars and pass between it and the sun for an event called opposition.
Consequently, these rare close approaches to Mars only happen every other year. Also, due to Mars' lopsided orbit, some oppositions are closer and more favorable than others. Provided the most favorable conditions, Mars can come as close as 34.7 million miles from Earth.
This month's opposition of Mars is the best and closest we've had in more than a decade, since 2005. When Mars reaches opposition on Sunday, it will be 47.3 million miles from Earth.
The closest approach to Mars actually will happen eight days later May 30, when Mars will be 46.8 million miles from Earth. Even from 47 million miles away, Mars will be one of the brightest objects in our night sky, and its ruddy color will make it unmistakable.
Mars will glow prominently in the southern constellation of Scorpius, the Scorpion, during its opposition, not far from the bright planet Saturn to the east and the bright star Antares to the southeast.
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Through a medium-sized telescope, Mars will look similar to a flaming red ball, but look more closely, and you might be able to make out some of its darker colored deserts and maybe even its snowy white north polar ice cap.
This year's opposition of Mars is only a warm up for the really close opposition two years from now, when Mars will pass merely 35.9 million miles from Earth.
The ringed planet Saturn is visible east of Mars this month and will reach its opposition on June 2, 838 million miles from Earth. Telescopically, Saturn is stunning right now, with its rings tilted toward Earth almost as much as they can be.
Jupiter passed its opposition March 8 and is still the brightest object visible in the early evening sky. Look high up in the southwestern sky to spot Jupiter, hanging out in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.
May's full Blue Moon will be positioned between Mars and Saturn on Saturday night. Those outside between 11 p.m. and midnight, you can see all three of the bright planets — Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — plus the full moon, all at the same time.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in Steamboat Today. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.
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