Stargazers can see Mars at its best this weekend. The sun, Earth and Mars directly align in what scientists call “Mars opposition” beginning Friday, with the red planet being the closest it’s been in 15 years on Tuesday.
“When a planet is at opposition, the planet is completely opposite the sun in the sky,” said Kevin Mackay, an astronomy and physics instructor at the University of South Florida. “So when the sun goes down, the planet comes up, and it’s available to see all night long. And then the planet sets, and then the sun comes up in the morning.”
Mackay said that Mars is visible even without a telescope.
“Because it’s a full moon also today (Friday), that means that it’ll be dead easy to pick out Mars in the sky because you’ll just see a bright orange star right beside the full moon,” said Mackay.
However, some of the planetary detail on Mars won’t be seen as clearly.
“There’s a big storm going on in Mars at the moment,” said Mackay. “It’s basically covering the whole planet and so Mars in the sky at the moment appears like a really, really bright orange star.”
But even if the weather conditions are great in space, the visibility of cosmic events depends on Earth’s atmosphere as well.
“It’s not great weather at the moment for observing because Tampa at this time of the year has so much moisture in the air,” said Mackay.
This event happens about every two years. Mackay explained that the Earth gets farther from the sun as the year continues. Now, because the Earth is close to its peak distance from the sun, it’s closer to Mars. At the same time, Mars is a lot closer to the sun too.
According to NASA, in 2003, the distance between Earth and Mars during the closest approach was 34.8 million miles. This year, it’s projected to be 35.8 million miles away. On average, the distance between Mars and Earth is about 140 million miles.
“The distance between the Earth and Mars is shorter than it normally would be,” said Mackay. “So this is like the brightest you’ll have seen Mars in the last 15 years or so.”
Antonio Paris, an astrophysics professor at the St. Petersburg College, said Mars should be as bright as Venus for the next few weeks.
From 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday, Paris said that astronomers from the Center of Planetary Science will set up telescopes for the public next to Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach. The group will also have meteorite samples from Mars and the moon for people to touch.
There is another celebrated celestial event later this summer.
“There’s a meteor shower called the Perseid meteor shower and it’s one of the best ones and it happens in mid-August,” said Mackay.
He said that people can expect to see about 100 meteors streaking across the sky every hour.
“So if you go outside and it’s a clear night, you should be able to see roughly one shooting star a minute,” said Mackay.