Night sky gawkers are preparing for an uncommon occurrence coming this Tuesday evening on April 8. That is when three entities within the solar system will be in a near perfect queue. The Sun, Earth and Mars will all be lined up in a stunning cosmic alignment, and Mars will also be visible in the night sky from sunset to sunrise.
According to Astronomy magazine, every two years, Mars reaches a point in its rotation called “opposition,” which means the planet will be aligned directly opposite of the Sun and Earth just happens to get caught in the middle. All planets within the solar system have their own points of opposition. Mars’ opposition happens about every 26 months.
Astronomy reports that the next opposition for the Red Planet will not happen again until May 22, 2016 so that makes tomorrow evening the biggest and brightest viewing of the planet for the next two years.
At the time of opposition, planets actually do become relatively close to the Earth, but the moment of opposition does not necessarily coincide with the closest distance between the two planets. The nearest distance between any two planets changes at regular intervals, ranging between 15 and 17 years for Mars and Earth and is based on their elliptical orbits. So, the “short” distance of 57 million miles between the two tomorrow night may not be the closest the two ever come to one another.
One way to think of it is to imagine each planet on a circular track around the Sun, sort of like a Styrofoam module at a science fair, and each track is shaped slightly different from the others. Depending on their distance from the Sun, the time it takes the planets to loop around the track will differ. Earth being closer to the Sun than Mars, it travels around the big guy a lot faster, making a complete rotation every 365 days. Mars, being much farther from the sun, finishes its rotation in 687 days. By the time the Red Planet completes an orbit, Earth is a long distance away and needs at least another year for catch up to be able to get between Mars and the Sun once again.
As the Sun sets over the horizon, Mars will be rising in the east, following a cosmic alignment which will mimic the trajectory of the day’s Sun. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program reports, Mars will be visible as a bright burnt orange color and about ten times brighter than neighboring stars as it moves overhead through the dark sky. Mars will conclude its arc setting in the west just as the Sun has done.
The National Weather Service has not reported any storms that may cloud visibility, so Mars should be observable in most areas. Due to its proximity to Earth, the vibrancy of Mars will make it easy to locate. It is predicted that rough features on the Martian surface should be detectable through a moderately sized amateur telescope. Around 7:30 p.m. EDT, a time slightly before sunset, two bright stars will start to rise on the eastern horizon, and in between the two will sit the Red Planet, the third in line of tomorrow’s cosmically cool line up.
By Stacy Feder