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Dave Epstein

Mars is going to be really bright for the rest of the summer

Mars was visible in the sky to the left of the Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canaries, Spain, on Wednesday. Venus is visible to the right. On July 27, Mars will be nearing the closest it's been to Earth in 15 years.
Mars was visible in the sky to the left of the Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canaries, Spain, on Wednesday. Venus is visible to the right. On July 27, Mars will be nearing the closest it's been to Earth in 15 years.(Gemma Miralda/AP Images for Airbnb)

You may or may not remember that back in 2003 Mars was at its brightest in nearly 60,000 years. Fast-forward just 15 years and we have another opportunity to see a super-bright Mars.

It won’t be as bright as it was in 2003, but it will be close. As a matter of fact it’s going to be so bright that it will outshine Jupiter from this week all the way until just after Labor Day.

An artist’s concept of Mars’s opposition (not to scale).
An artist’s concept of Mars’s opposition (not to scale).(NASA)

The brightness of Mars has to do with its proximity to the Earth as it revolves around the sun. The orbit of Mars takes about two Earth years; sometimes Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun and other times they are close together.

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On July 27, Mars will reach its opposition, when the Earth passes between the sun and Mars. That means that as the sun rises, Mars will set, and vice versa, keeping Mars in the sky basically all night. It’s a similar pattern for several weeks either side of opposition as well.

An illustration of the relative tilts in the orbits of Mars and Earth.
An illustration of the relative tilts in the orbits of Mars and Earth.(NASA)

Remember, the orbit of the planets is elliptical. This means the distance of the planets from the sun changes during their trip. A planet’s furthest pass from the sun is called aphelion, which Earth experienced last week. Perihelion is the closest pass to the sun, and Earth will experience that in early January

According to NASA, “Mars’ orbit is more elliptical than Earth’s, so the difference between perihelion and aphelion is greater. Over the past centuries, Mars’ orbit has been getting more and more elongated, carrying the planet even nearer to the sun at perihelion and even farther away at aphelion. So future perihelic oppositions will bring Earth and Mars even closer. But we’ll still have bragging rights for awhile. Our 2003 record will stand until August 28, 2287!”

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How to see Mars

The weather looks quite dry over the coming week to 10 days, which means you should be able to get a view of Mars during this time.

Mars rise and set times into mid-July.
Mars rise and set times into mid-July. (US Naval Observatory)

It’s not just Mars that you can see either. Venus is also going to be quite visible this month. If you can get a good view of the western sky and away from city lights Mercury is also present.

Lunar eclipse late month

Finally, there is a lunar eclipse later this month. However, you are going to have to travel a bit to see it. It’s the longest eclipse of the century, but unfortunately it’s not visible around here.

The full moon will be passing close to Mars in late July.
The full moon will be passing close to Mars in late July. (Earthsky.org)

Maybe it’s a good excuse to head south or east to get a really great view!

The longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century takes place on July 27.
The longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century takes place on July 27.(NASA)