Get those telescopes ready! For the next couple weeks, Mars will hover at its closest to us. Mars reaches opposition on Tuesday April 8, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. EDT when the red planet will be aligned with both the Earth and the Sun. 1
Mars sits in the constellation Virgo, just above Virgo’s main star Spica, whose distinct blue dazzle creates a splendid contrast with Mars’ bright orange tinge. It is now early summer on Mars, and its northern polar cap-the planet’s most striking telescopic feature-has largely melted.
Because Mars’ orbit is lopsided, every 26 months when Earth and Mars meet, the encounter can occur at either a narrow gap between our orbits, as was the cause in late August 2003, or the widest possible gap, as was the case in the late winter of 2012. This time, opposition is occurring almost at its worst, making Mars’ disk appear a mere 15 arcseconds across.
If the orbits of Mars and Earth were perfectly circular, April 8th would also be the date of closest approach. However, since planetary orbits are elliptical, the date of closest approach doesn’t arrive until almost a week later on April 14th when Earth and Mars will be separated by a mere 57 million miles (92 million km) or a 10-month flight for NASA’s latest Mars mission.
Catching the total lunar eclipse later that evening will require staying up into the early hours of April 15. The event starts at 12:54 a.m. EDT and the total lunar eclipse begins at 3:07 a.m. EDT, according to Astronomy magazine.2
The next Mars oppositions will occur in 2016 and 2018, during which Mars will be even more visible. An amateur telescope should be able to pick out the red planet tonight, which will shine nearly 10 times brighter than a first magnitude star. Watch Slooh’s live coverage of the 2014 Mars opposition on YouTube. Additionally, the Virtual Telescope Project will host a livestream with commentary from an astrophysicist. Happy viewing!