Mars at Opposition

By Dennis Mammana

March 27, 2014 4 min read

Week of March 30 — April 5, 2014

While in college during the early 1970s, I worked one summer as a counselor in a Pennsylvania children's home. One of my favorite residents there was a rather burly street-wise kid named Rufus. Rufus taught me to play pool, and I taught him about space.

I have no idea how our discussion began, but one afternoon we were talking about Mars. I mentioned that he could see the Red Planet in the sky later that evening. His response really shocked me: "Get out!" he reacted. "You can't see Mars. It's another planet!"

That was the first time I realized how abstract astronomy must seem to some people, and how removed they must feel from the universe.

I can't remember if Rufus ever went out to gaze toward Mars that night, but if you've never seen the Red Planet before, this is a great time to get started.

Now glowing at its brightest, Mars appears against the stars of the constellation Virgo, the maiden, which, of course, lie trillions of miles farther than the planet and only appear along the same line of sight.

Mars reaches its official "opposition" on April 8, when the planet lies directly opposite from the sun in our sky. Head outdoors shortly after dark and you'll see what I mean. Stand with your back to the sunset point and there, right in front of you, will glow the brilliant orange light of Mars. You'll have a hard time missing it since it outshines every star in that area of the sky.

Stargazers who keep a close eye on the Red Planet over the next few weeks will notice it drifting its way westward through the stars of Virgo — away from the bright star Spica — where it will appear to stop its westward motion in late May, turn around and begin heading eastward once again. By mid-August, it will enter the constellation of Libra, the scales, and will appear some 2.5 times fainter.

To understand why this happens, imagine viewing Earth, Mars and the sun from space. Each day, our planet moves 1.5 million miles along its orbit around the sun. Mars, orbiting farther from the sun's gravitational pull, travels more slowly. This means that, every 26 months or so, the Earth catches up with Mars from behind, passes it on the "inside," and then gradually pulls ahead of it.

You can think of it as two racecars on concentric circular tracks. If the inner car is traveling faster, it will regularly "lap" the outer car and its driver will see the outer car appearing to go backwards for a short time.

One easy way to track this motion is by making a sketch of the planet's position among the stars of Virgo from week to week, or even by taking a series of photographs of the area.

Though opposition occurs officially on April 8 this year, the planet will actually reach its closest point to Earth six days later, when it will lie within only about 57,406,000 miles. In other words, now's the time to get out and begin checking out Mars.

Rufus, I hope you're out there keeping watch!

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