“Just look southeast after the end of twilight, and you can’t miss it,” Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky & Telescope, said in a statement. “Mars looks almost scary now, compared to how it normally looks.”
The distance between Mars and Earth varies greatly depending on where in their orbits the two planets are.
It takes Mars 687 Earth days to make its trip around the sun, compared with the Earth’s 365 days. That means that Earth makes about two turns around the sun to every one that Mars makes. The two planets pass by each other about once every 26 months.
But even at this biannual moment of closest approach, the distance between the two bodies can vary quite a bit. Mars’ orbit is highly elliptical, or egg shaped, so sometimes the planets pass within 35 million miles of each other; other times Mars is still 60 million miles away.
On Aug. 25, 2003, Mars came within 34.6 million miles of Earth – the closest it had been in 60,000 years. The astronomers at Sky & Telescope say we can look forward to a similarly close approach in July 2018.
Tonight, Mars will be 46.8 million miles from us. That’s still close enough to get a great view of it. If you have a backyard telescope, you should be able to make out the surface markings, clouds and polar caps as long as you have clear skies.
And if you don’t have clear skies, fear not. The astronomy website Slooh will be streaming a live view of Mars from one of its telescopes on the Canary Islands. You can watch it right here.
Finally, tonight is hardly your last night to get a good view of Mars. The planet will stay within 48 million of Earth until June 12, giving sky watchers a great opportunity to see our rusty red neighbor glowing brightly in the night.