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Mars is closer to Earth in October than it will be for another 15 years

Posted October 5, 2020 2:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2020 6:58 a.m. EDT

Every 26 months Mars is opposite the Sun in our nighttime sky. Since 1995, Mars has been at such an "opposition" with the Sun seven times. A color composite from each of the seven Hubble opposition observations has been assembled in this mosaic to showcase the beauty and splendor that is The Red Planet. This mosaic of all seven globes of Mars shows relative variations in the apparent angular size of Mars over the years. Mars was the closest in 2003 when it came within 56 million kilometres of Earth. The part of Mars that is tilted towards the Earth also shifts over time, resulting in the changing visibility of the polar caps. Clouds and dust storms, as well as the size of the ice caps, can change the appearance of Mars on time scales of days, weeks, and months. Other features of Mars, such as some of the large dark markings, have remained unchanged for centuries. (images: NASA/Space Science Institute)

— If you spied a fiery red star close to the full moon over the weekend, it was actually Mars shining its bright red light in the night sky.

The planet will be visible at night throughout October, rising the highest in the sky around midnight each evening. It will shine in the east each evening and in the west before dawn.

But Mars doesn't always make an appearance like this. So, why is Mars shining so brightly?

The red planet makes its closest approach to Earth at 10:18 am ET on October 6. Mars will be 38,586,816 miles away from Earth --- yes, that's close for Mars -- and it won't be this close again until 2035. Mars in 2003 made its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, coming within a distance of 34.65 million miles.

Next week, Earth will swing between Mars and the sun.

This event, called Mars' opposition, occurs on October 13, when it will be directly on the opposite side of Earth from the sun, according to NASA.

Mars and Earth don't orbit the sun in perfect circles or even on the same plane. Instead, the planets have elliptical orbits shaped like ovals.

For example, while Earth only takes 365 days to complete an orbit around the sun, Mars takes 687 days. When Earth moves closer to the sun, Mars moves away from it.

Currently, NASA's Perseverance rover is zipping through space and on its way to landing on Mars in February 2021. It's one of several missions en route to Mars, including the United Arab Emirates' Hope probe and China's Tianwen-1.

Perserverance launched on July 30, specifically within a time frame that would allow for a quicker journey between Earth and Mars when they're in alignment on the same side of the sun.

Watch for Venus, Jupiter and Saturn

In addition to beautifully bright Mars, look out for other planets lighting up the sky.

Venus, which is the third brightest object in the night sky after the sun and the moon, is still brighter than Mars -- it only appears so in the morning.

Mars reigns supreme in the night sky right now and Venus shows off its brightness in the eastern morning sky, according to EarthSky, a nonprofit organization and astronomy website.

Mars is even outshining Jupiter throughout October.

But once Mars fades from view, Jupiter will be one of the brightest objects in the evening sky, and Saturn will also be visible to the east of Jupiter.

This is because of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The two largest planets in our solar system are having a rare meeting that occurs every 20 years.

The conjunction officially occurs on December 21, 2020, but both planets are visible now in proximity to each other and will be for the rest of the year in the night sky.

Jupiter outshines the stars, while Saturn gives off a bright golden glow.

During the last great conjunction in 2000, the two giant planets were near the sun from our perspective on Earth, making them difficult to see.

The reason this conjunction is rare is due to the orbits of these giant planets -- Jupiter takes 12 Earth years to complete one orbit around the sun, and Saturn takes 30 years.

And every 20 years, Jupiter catches up with Saturn from our perspective on Earth.

So take advantage of this rare opportunity to see both close together in the night sky.

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