This summer has been a prime time to see all manner of celestial happenings, from the Strawberry Moon to Saturn’s opposition. Mark your calendar now for July 27, because the next incredible planetary viewing opportunity will be that evening, when Mars’ opposition will be visible in the night sky.
Opposition for any planetary sighting refers to when it and the sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. Mars, with its slower orbit, reaches opposition a little over every two years. Due to its ovular rotation around the sun, as well as Earth’s, the distance from us changes ever so slightly each time. This year, it will be the brightest it has been since 2003.
When Will Mars’ Opposition Be Visible?
Mars’ orbit is even more elliptical than Earth’s, and it has been getting more and more elongated over the years. Every 15 to 17 years, opposition with Earth appears within a few weeks of Mars’ closest position to the sun, making it brighter and thus more visible from here on Earth. In the last few days of July, Mars will appear even brighter than Jupiter and Venus!
When Mars is bright, it’s not due to its size, like Jupiter. Mars is just above half the size of Earth, and it takes a close proximity for us amateur stargazers to take a good look at it. This year’s event is called a perihelic opposition, meaning Mars will rise as the sun is setting, about two hours after Saturn does the same. That makes midnight a better time to view the Red Planet on the East coast.
Why Is Mars So Bright in Opposition?
At peak viewing time, Mars will be 15 times brighter than the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. It all has to do with the gravitational pull that makes some oppositions better to see than others. If you missed the 2003 occasion, be sure to check this one out because Mars won’t be that bright again for another 60,000 years, thanks to its uneven, tilted orbit.
Mars actually comes closest to Earth four days into opposition, which means if you forget to head outside the night it’s brightest, you’ll still get a chance to see the planet, albeit less clearly. Binoculars will help, a telescope would be even better, and if you’re lucky enough to live near an observatory, you could even see Mars’ detailed landscape up close.