October this year is the perfect month for amateur stargazers hoping to dip their toes into more serious astronomy. A rare Halloween Blue Moon will rise on October 31 and the Red Planet Mars is very easy to spot as it is currently the third brightest object seen at night. And the planet is slowly lining up with the Sun, heading into opposition next week.
What is Mars opposition?
Every 26 months or so, the Red Planet and Earth align on the same side of the Sun.
In astronomical circles, this alignment is known as opposition and it sees the Sun, Earth and Mars form a straight line.
The opposite, Mars in conjunction, happens when the Red Planet is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.
“Then, after staying up in the sky the entire night, Mars sets in the west just as the Sun rises in the east.
“Since Mars and the Sun appear on opposite sides of the sky, we say that Mars is in ‘opposition.'”
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When is Mars in opposition this year?
Astronomers expect opposition to occur this year on Tuesday, October 13.
Every 15 to 17 years, Mars opposition falls within a few weeks of the Red Planet’s closest orbit of the Sun – its perihelion.
This year, opposition falls one week after Mars’s closest orbit of our planet.
On October 6, Mars came within 38,568,243 miles (62,069,570km) of Earth – its closest approach until 2035.
But Mars opposition can happen at any point in the planet’s orbit.
Some perihelic oppositions bring us closer together than others
NASA said: “When it happens while the Red Planet is closest to the Sun – called ‘perihelic opposition’ – Mars is particularly close to Earth.
“If Earth and Mars both had perfectly stable orbits, then each perihelic opposition would bring the two planets as close as they can be. That’s almost the way it is.”
Instead, the planets’ orbits are elliptic, slightly tilted in relation to one another, and the Red Planet’s orbit is affected by Jupiter.
NASA added: “So, with all these added factors, some perihelic oppositions bring us closer together than others.”
The Mars opposition in 2003 was Mars’s closest approach in 60,000 years and will be so until August 28, 2287.
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Mars opposition 2020: The opposite of opposition is Mars conjunction
Mars opposition 2020: Look for the Red Planet in the eastern skies after sunset
How to see Mars in opposition next week?
The moment of opposition will happen at about 12.20am BST or 11.20pm GMT next Tuesday.
But the good news is you will be able to see Mars much earlier than that.
Keep your eyes peeled on the eastern horizon after sunset and you will see a very bright star rise into the sky.
When viewed from London, UK, the sun will set at about 6.10pm BST (5.10pm GMT).
This star will actually be Mars, which will be about 40 million miles (64 million km) from Earth.
NASA’s Lance D. Davis said: “When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted towards the Earth.
“Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes.”
He added: “The most striking thing about Mars’s appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red colour.
“This colour is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’s surface – the same thing that causes the red colour in sandstone formations in the southwestern US.”