Mars Appears At Its Brightest Tonight As Planet Moves Into Opposition

The phenomenon comes a week before Mars will make its closest approach to the Earth since 2005.

23/05/2016 2:50 AM AEST | Updated 23/05/2016 2:50 AM AEST
The Hubble Space Telescope snapped this image of Mars just days before the red planet's opposition on May 22.

Get your telescopes ready -- tonight's sky is expected to be a bright one.

Mars will be the brightest it’s been in two years as it undergoes what’s called Mars opposition, an orbital placement that puts the Earth directly between the sun and the Red Planet.

As a result, Mars will be brightly illuminated by the sun's rays, making it the brightest object in the Earth's sky, just behind the sun and moon.

"From our perspective on our spinning world, Mars rises in the east just as the sun sets in the west. Then, after staying up in the sky the entire night, Mars sets in the west just as the sun rises in the east," NASA explains on its website.

It's a phenomenon that happens once every two years (or 26 months), about the time the Red Planet takes to completely orbit the sun.

On Sunday, NASA estimates that Mars will be 47.4 million miles away from the Earth.

Amateur astronomer Dr. Ian Musgrave, from the University of Adelaide in Australia, has recommended stargazers use telescopes if they have the chance.

"From the point of view of someone standing around looking into the sky, it is just going to be a bright dot," he told Australia's ABC News. "But even if you have a small telescope, the disc of Mars will be big enough to see details and maybe even the polar cap."

Those who miss Sunday's event, worry not.

Stargazers have May 30 to look forward to as well, when Mars will be the closest it's been to Earth since 2005.

May 30 is expected to be an even bigger show. That's when Mars will make its closest approach to the Earth since 2005, coming about 46.8 million miles away. That process is called the Mars Close Approach.

From May 18 to June 3, the planet will appear brighter than usual because of its placement. By mid-June, it will start to become faint, as Mars and Earth move farther apart in their orbits around the sun, NASA explains.

Those will miss this month's festivities will have to wait, but fortunately not a lifetime. The next Mars Close Approach is on July 31, 2018.

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