(CN) — Astronomers around the world watch and wait in anticipation as Mars puts on a show this month, complete with its closest approach to Earth and a dueling dance with the sun.
As long as humans have been keeping written records, stargazers and astronomers have been transfixed by the activity of the red planet. Besides being the subject of its potential for human exploration — and colonization and ability to support extraterrestrial life — Mars has been known to put on rare and brief astronomical shows.
And October is a month of performances for the red planet.
On Oct. 13, Mars will be in what astronomers call opposition, meaning that to the earthy viewer, it will appear to be directly opposite the sun in the sky. On that day, Earth will be exactly between Mars and the sun, so Mars will rise just as the sun sets and will set just as the sun rises.
Mars will also appear the brightest to the naked eye and will appear notably larger to those observing it through a telescope. Already this month, Mars made its closest approach to Earth, separated by just 39 million miles on Oct. 6 — remarkably close in the context of the cosmos.
While Mars’ opposition occurs roughly every 26 months — the time it takes Earth to catch up to Mars as they make their orbital rounds — this year’s opposition is particularly special due to an event known as perihelion. On Aug. 3, Mars was 13 million miles closer to the sun than average, and while it is slowly moving away, its proximity to the sun along with opposition makes for a unique viewing experience for those armed with telescopes.
While technically Mars was slightly closer to Earth in 2018, for those in the Northern Hemisphere are enjoying a more interesting show this time around. Because Mars will be situated farther north and much higher up in the sky, the more direct viewing path makes it easier for it to be viewed and photographed in better detail than was possible two years ago.
For those excited to see these events with their own eyes, the instructions are simple. Go outdoors in early evening and look to the east. Mars will appear to the eye as bright orange star lurking just above the horizon. And don’t worry about getting it confused with something else in the solar system — during this time, nothing else in that section of the sky will be able to compete with its brightness or recognizable warm hue.
In the event one can’t catch Mars at that time, don’t fret. By midnight, Mars will still be clearly visible, only by then it will hang high to the south.
While Mars can be easily seen with the naked eye, those looking to get a better look should find a high-quality telescope. With a good telescope, stargazers can see Mars’ surface in detail.
Experts warn people to ignore a common misconception that tends to travel around the internet during times like this, that during opposition Mars will appear as full and large as Earth’s moon. Due to the sheer distance between Earth and Mars, the red planet will always look like a star to the unaided eye.
But if one were to look at Mars during this time using a telescope with intense magnification capabilities (around 80x should do the trick) Mars will appear as roughly the same size as the moon would look like to the eye without a telescope. In other words, Mars can be observed with just as much detail through a telescope as the moon can be seen with the human eye.
Mars’ show is fleeting, though. Those who wish to enjoy this cosmic phenomenon should do so since Mars will not be this close to Earth again until 2035.