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Big Bright Red Mars

October-November 2005 Close Approach

The orbits of Earth and Mars get close to each other about every two years. By now, we've passed the closest approach in 2005, but Mars will be visible as a bright yellow/red star rising in the East soon after sunset and high in the sky in the middle of the night. Although technically not as close at the 2003 approach listed below, once Venus sets in the West, Mars will be the brightest object in the sky for a few days as the New Moon makes no lasting appearance.

If I remember my information correctly, this 2005 approach will be the closest until 2018...? And a year from now, Mars in the Fall of 2006 will be very small and very far away as Earth orbits the Sun about twice as fast as Mars.


Closest Approach: Wednesday 27 August 2003 05:51am EDT

High overhead in Western Michigan skies in the middle of the night, at 2 or 3am for the last month, has been a big bright red visitor. It is Mars.

Though the Greeks and Romans were among the many people who revered the red planet as representative of a god, and with its red color, reserved for Mars the status as God of War, you will be able to see a sight that none of the Greek or Roman writers, statesmen or philosophers could ever have seen.

The planet Mars and the planet Earth get close to each other about every two years. This is called "Opposition" when the Earth is exactly in-line between the Sun and a moon or planet. But in late August 2003, this closest approach will be the closest it's been in some 60,000 years (since 57,537 B.C.).

On August 27th at 5:51am, the distance between the two planets will only be 34,646,418 miles.

While that's still too far to see Mars with the naked eye as anything other than a bright light, it will be brighter in the sky than Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System and this is almost half the distance Mars was at closest approach in 1995. Why the change? Because neither planet's orbits are precisely circular around the Sun, so with two ellipses offset from each other, every close approach will be different.

Back one year ago: On the other hand, last August Mars and Earth were at about the maximum distance they can be from each other, when Mars was in Conjunction with the Sun (opposite side of solar system). Mars was 248,336,000 miles away on Tuesday 14 August 2002.

In August 2003, Mars will be 69 times brighter than it was in August 2002.

To see Mars, you need some clear sky (not always easy in town or with West Michigan's weather) above and somewhat to the south anytime after 10 or 11pm. If you see a big bright red star, that's Mars.

(Sources: NASA, AP and The Grand Rapids Press, and Star Hustler on PBS)

Last Update: 06 November 2005 Sunday.