29Jul2018

Brilliant Mars Close Encounter This Week!

Look to the south or southeast sky after dark during the next week or so and you will see the brightly beaming, rust-colored planet Mars. It looks like a small jewel hanging about 30 to 35 degrees above the horizon.

This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars, which is projected to make its closest approach to Eart in 15 years on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. (AP)

It is very bright.While the planet is pretty to look at, this is not an unusual event. Mars comes close to Earth approximately every two years. However, this is the closest the planet has come since 2003. Unlike a lunar eclipse, this closeness is not a one-day event. It will be bright for several weeks and amazing through even a modest telescope!

According to NASA, Mars is orbiting at 35.8 million miles from Earth with its closest pass and brightest period running for five days, with the final day, Tuesday, being the date of closest proximity. This is due to the elliptical, or egg-shaped, orbits of both Earth and Mars, NASA said.

Mars isn’t alone. Other naked-eye planets are visible in the evening, including Mercury, which hovers above the western horizon in the late twilight. Moving from west to east are Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Venus and Jupiter, along with Mars, are easy to pick out because of their brightness.

Mars is near the constellation Sagittarius, which has a star formation often referred to as a teapot. Astronomers gauge brightness, or magnitude, on a scale that assigns negative numbers as objects become brighter. Mars was at magnitude of minus 0.5 in May and is now at a magnitude of minus 2.7.

The next time Mars will come close to Earth will be on Oct. 6, 2020, at a distance of 38.6 million miles. That event will be much like the current close pass. In 2003, Mars came even closer to Earth in a really rare event

The public’s interest in Mars may be related to the recent discovery of water below the planet’s surface and the discoveries of robotic explorers over the years. NASA said that an urban legend that Mars will be the apparent size of the moon is false. Joe Bruce, the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory ambassador in Spokane, said, “You don’t need a big fancy telescope” to enjoy the brightness of Mars. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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