Tonight Mars Comes the Closest to Earth in Over a Decade

May 30, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Artist's impression of Mars
Photo credit: NASA

Here’s how to see it.

On this Memorial Day (May 30), Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in over a decade. Stargazers should be able to see the Red Planet at its brightest for the year. With a small telescope, you should be able to spot surface details like the southern white ice cap.

On May 22, Mars was at “opposition” — when the sun, Earth, and Mars form a straight line in space. Because both Earth and Mars have elliptical orbits around the sun, Mars is often closest to Earth several days before or after opposition. It will come within 46.78 million miles (75.28 million kilometers) of Earth at 5:35 pm EDT, according to Space.com.

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Even though it will be closest during the daylight hours, Mars will still be visible for most of the night. To spot Mars in the night sky, face towards the southeast and start looking up. Around midnight, Mars should be at its highest point in the sky at 35 degrees above the horizon.

Over the next few weeks, Mars will also be joined by the planet Saturn and Antares, which is a red giant star. The three will form a triangular pattern that rises in the eastern sky in the early evening.

Mars Saturn and Antares align in the night sky May 2016

Looking SSE at midnight. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Image has been cropped

But if you miss tonight’s close encounter, don’t fret. According to NASA, Mars will be even closer July 31 2018, at 35.78 million miles (57.59 million kilometers) away. The 2018 opposition will be more spectacular compared to this year’s because Mars will be approaching its closest point to the sun, called perihelion, when it arrives at opposition.

This means that Mars will be 25 percent larger than it appears tonight, as well as twice as bright.

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