Mars Is the Brightest Its Been Since 2003 Tonight. Here's How to See It.
It's been an excellent summer for skywatching. There have been outstanding views of Saturn and Venus, and it's not over yet. The night of Friday, July 27, Mars will be in opposition and the brightest it's been in our sky since 2003.
Planetary opposition happens when the planet and the sun are sitting at opposite sides of the Earth. With our world closer to the sun, its orbit is shorter. Earth goes around the sun twice in about the same time it takes Mars to make a single orbit. Opposition with Mars only occurs once every two years and 50 days.
It'll be the brightest its been in 15 years because once every 15 to 17 years, opposition occurs close to when Mars is at the point of its orbit that is closest to the sun. When that happens, Mars is brighter than usual.
In fact, from July 7 to September 7, Mars will be even brighter than Jupiter, according to EarthSky. The gas giant is usually the second-brightest planet as seen from Earth and the fourth brightest object in our sky behind the sun, moon, and Venus. With Mars only being half the size of Earth, it doesn't get bright because of its size like Jupiter. It's all about how close it is, and that's why it appeared so faintly throughout 2017.
How to see Mars in opposition
This year's perihelic opposition has Mars rising just as the sun is setting. The Red Planet will rise in the southeast sky, as will Saturn. Of course, this is always the case with opposition, since the sun and the planet are on opposite sides of Earth. As the sun sets in the West, Mars will rise in the East. In the morning, Mars will set in the West as the sun rises in the East.
However, the best time to get a view of Mars will be around midnight, when it's higher in the sky. You'll be seeing the planet five times brighter than usual, per a report by Space.com.
You will be able to see the planet by just looking up, but you'll get a better view if you bring along a pair of binoculars or a telescope. If you're lucky and live near an observatory, you could get a spectacular view.
If you can't go out on July 27, you'll still get a good view of Mars for a few more days. The planet will actually be at its closest point to Earth on July 31, though it won't be in opposition, according to EarthSky. That means your best view will be found the night of the 27th.
If you missed the opposition in 2003, this one is absolutely worth catching. The opposition in 2003 was the brightest Mars had been in the Earth sky in 60,000 years. The next time it will appear that brightly will be August 28, 2287, according to NASA. So, you probably won't be able to see it this bright again. Probably.
What is opposition?
Opposition happens when a planet sits opposite the sun from the vantage point of Earth. All three orbs are aligned with the Earth sitting right in the middle. That means as the sun sets in the west, the planet will rise in the east. When the night is through, the planet will set in the west just as the sun is rising in the east.