Check out Mars tonight: It’s closer to Earth than it has been in 11 years

Mars by Hubble
The Hubble Space Telescope took this image of Mars on May 12, 2016, when the Red Planet was 50 million miles from Earth.
(NASA, ESA, J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute))

As you wind down from your Memorial Day festivities tonight, take a minute to find Mars glowing yellow and bright in the eastern sky.

On the evening of May 30,  the Red Planet will come closer to Earth than it has in 11 years. 

Because Mars and Earth are so close to each other tonight, our planetary neighbor will be shining especially bright in the night sky.

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“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.

You can go to to join and watch this live broadcast, snap and share your own photos during the event, chat with audience members and interact with the hosts, and personally control Slooh’s telescopes.

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.

Follow me @DeborahNetburn and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


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