In just a few days, Mars will make its closest approach to Earth in 15 years. It won’t be quite as close as the 2003 approach but close. In fact, based on the current conditions on Mars, you may have a better than usual chance to spot the planet with the naked eye.
Astronomers have calculated that Mars will be a mere 35.8 million miles (57.6 million kilometers) next Tuesday, July 31. That’s practically in our backyard by some measures. The following week on Friday, August 11, Mars will be in opposition to the sun. That means the two objects will be on the exact opposite sides of the Earth. That’s also when parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and Europe will get a partial solar eclipse. It’s a busy time of year in astronomy.
As you might be aware, there’s a global dust storm raging on the red planet right now. It threatens to forever silence the plucky little Opportunity rover, but there’s a nice upshot for non-robots here on Earth. The dust will reflect more of the sun’s light, so the faint red dot of Mars will be easier to see than usual. The 2003 pass was only slightly closer, so you might have a better view this time.
For astronomers looking at Mars through telescopes, there’s no functional difference between this close pass and the 2003 event. They’ll be able to get a closer look at Mars as the surface is mostly covered with clouds of dust. That might not make for riveting viewing for those of us on the sidelines, but it’s rare that we can see Mars so clearly when a global dust storm is raging.
In the northern hemisphere, you should see Mars peek over the horizon in the late evening when looking south. Mars’ increased albedo from the dust storm should make it as bright as an airplane’s landing light. If you miss the closest approach on July 31, don’t fret. There should be an unprecedented good view of Mars in the sky for another week or so following that. Likewise, you can go out tonight and get a good look at Mars as it moves in for its close pass. Do yourself a favor and get out there to see it for yourself. The planet should be bright enough to appear in the sky even in urban areas with light pollution.