- Over the course of the next several weeks, the distance between the Earth and the Red Planet will shrink.
- Mars will be its brightest on the morning of July 31.
- The next time Mars comes as close as it will this summer won't occur again until Sept. 15, 2035.
Stargazers are in for a treat in July as Mars makes it closest swing by Earth, making it appear brighter than it has since 2003.
Over the course of the next several weeks, the distance between the Earth and the Red Planet will shrink as Earth passes between Mars and the sun. During the orbital fly-by, Mars will be its brightest on the morning of July 31.
In 2003, Mars came within 34.9 million miles of Earth, closer than it had ever approached in 60,000 years. This summer's show won't be quite as impressive as 2003, considering our neighbor planet will only be 35.8 million miles away at its closest. Still, backyard astronomers using telescopes should have a spectacular view of the Red Planet's unique features.
"This Martian pass in July will be almost as good as the ultra-close opposition on 2003," Dean Regas, an astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory, told Mother Nature Network. "Mars will easily be visible to the naked eye. In fact, you will be hard pressed to miss it. It will look like a glowing orange beacon of light rising in the southeast after sunset. It'll be much brighter than any star, brighter than Jupiter, nearly as bright as Venus. And you'll see it every night for the next several months."
The appearance of Mars varies dramatically from year to year depending on the distance between the neighboring planets. It takes Earth 365.25 days to make its elliptical orbit around the sun, while Mars requires 687 days to complete its own elliptical journey. The distance between the two can vary wildly. One year, the planets may be relatively close while other years, they are as far-flung across the universe as they could ever be. In 2016, the planets were at opposite ends of their orbits with 47 million miles between them, making Mars appear very small.
Mars is a small planet, with a diameter of just 4,219 miles compared to Earth's 7,922 miles. Typically, both the Red Planet and Jupiter can be seen in the predawn hours, with Jupiter and its massive 86,881.4 miles in diameter outshining Mars. But, in July, Mars is expected to have its turn to outshine the Gas Giant because of its proximity to Earth, notes EarthSky.
Interestingly, the brightest star in the sky, or planet as the case may be, is referred to as the "morning star" before dawn and the "evening star" after dusk. While Venus is always the brightest star in the night sky, Jupiter often gets the honor of being called the morning star since Venus tends to set long before dawn. For a few weeks in late July and early August, however, tiny Mars will have its turn to be the morning star.
While the details of the surface of the planet will be more visible to those gazing through a telescope, the planet itself will be visible to the naked eye. Getting away from the light pollution of towns and cities always offers a better view of the night sky.
In July, Mars rises after sundown in the east and will be second in brilliance only to Venus. The best time to view Mars and Jupiter together is before dawn in the western sky.
From the vantage point of New York City, Mars will rise July 30 at 8:25 p.m and will set at 5:18 a.m. on July 31, the day it will be at its brightest.
Mars will continue to shine brightly throughout August.
The next time Mars comes as close as it will this summer won't occur again until Sept. 15, 2035.