Science

Mars at opposition before closest approach in a decade

This weekend, Mars could look bigger and brighter than it has in a decade. On Sunday, the Red Planet will line up perfectly with the Earth and Sun before making its closest approach to Earth in 10½ years.

On Sunday morning, Mars will line up perfectly in the sky with the Earth and sun

The planet Mars seen over a city landmark, a weather vane in the form of an angel, fixed atop a spire of the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, April 11, 2014. That was three days after the last Mars opposition, which happens once every two years. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Last week, Mercury stole the show. Now it's Mars' turn.

On Sunday morning, Mars, Earth and the sun will line up perfectly in the sky. This once-every-two-years event is called Mars opposition. That's because Mars and the sun will be on opposite sides of Earth.

Right now, Mars is about 77 million kilometres from us, coming ever closer until May 30, when the red planet passes within 75.3 million kilometres. That will be Mars' closest approach in 10½ years. In 2018, Mars will get a lot chummier, passing within a mere 58 million kilometres.

The modern-day record of 55.7 million kilometres between Earth and Mars was set in 2003. That won't be surpassed until the year 2287, according to NASA.

On Thursday, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore released a snapshot of Mars taken by the Hubble Telescope May 12 from 80 million kilometres out. The stunning image shows details as small as 30 to 50 kilometres across. (NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

At the other end of the scale, Earth and Mars can be as much as 400 million kilometres apart when they wind up on opposite sides of the sun every couple years.

May is proving a busy month for stargazers.

On May 9, Mercury passed directly between Earth and the sun, resembling a black dot against our vast, bright star.

Telescopes or high-powered binoculars were needed to see that Mercury transit, which occurs just 13 times or so a century. Nothing fancy is needed to gaze upon Mars — just your eyes.

Great views well into June

Sky-watchers, gazing to the southeast at nightfall, can enjoy a brighter, seemingly bigger Mars well into June. A full moon, on May 21, will add to the viewing pleasure.

The Hubble Space Telescope already is zooming in for pictures. On Thursday, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore released a snapshot of Mars taken May 12 from 80 million kilometres out. The stunning image shows details as small as 30 to 50 kilometres across.

Corrections

  • n an earlier version of this story, the headline, deck and summary incorrectly implied that Mars at opposition and Mars's closest approach to Earth both took place on May 22. In fact, opposition took place on May 22, but the closest approach takes place on May 30.
    May 23, 2016 10:06 AM ET

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