For the next couple of weeks, Mars will look bigger than it’s looked in a decade! And no, this is not a hoax.
Every August, the Internet goes a little crazy over claims that the Red Planet is about to look twice as big as the moon in the night sky. That viral hoax got started in 2003, when some folks scrambled up reports about Mars’ historic close approach during that summer.
Mars isn’t coming quite as close as it did back then, and it certainly won’t be anywhere near as big as the moon. But by May 30, the distance between Earth and Mars will shrink to 46.8 million miles, which is closer than any other approach since 2005.
That closeness is due to the position of Earth and Mars in their elliptical orbits as they line up with each other and with the sun. On Sunday, Mars will be directly opposite the sun, looming right in the center of the night sky at astronomical midnight. The occasion is known as opposition.
Because Mars’ full disk is illuminated, as seen from Earth, opposition is an especially good time to check out the Red Planet with your naked eye, with binoculars … or with the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Hubble team snapped a portrait of Mars on May 12, from a distance of 50 million miles. That’s close enough to make out details as small as 20 miles across. The upland region known as Arabia Terra is front and center, with the dark features known as Sinus Sabaeus and Sinus Meridiani just south.
This Mars portrait is ringed with clouds and haze – including a clump of clouds covering the summit of Syrtis Major, the low-relief shield volcano on the eastern edge of the planet’s disk.
Unless you’re a skilled astronomer with a good-sized telescope, your view of Mars won’t match Hubble’s. And if you’re hanging around Seattle, the prospects for clear skies aren’t exactly promising. Nevertheless, it’s worth keeping an eye out at night for Mars’ butterscotch-tinged twinkle.
Over the weekend, Mars will share the sky with the full moon and Saturn, as shown in this Sky & Telescope graphic:
Mars also gets its close-up in online webcasts over the next couple of weeks.
The Slooh virtual observatory will put on a show about the full moon at 5 p.m. Saturday, with follow-up shows about Mars scheduled at 5 p.m. PT May 22 and 6 p.m. May 30. In addition to telescopic views, you’ll get commentary from Slooh astronomers.
Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi’s Virtual Telescope Project plans to stream telescopic images of Mars starting at 3 p.m. PT May 22 and May 30.
If the weather perks up for June, you might be able to catch a look at Mars through a telescope during the Seattle Astronomical Society’s Green Lake Star Party at 9 p.m. PT June 11. But if you belong to the society, you won’t have to wait that long: Members-only star parties are scheduled on May 28 and June 4.