On April 14, Mars – our nearest, potentially habitable planet – will be at closest approach, giving Earth dwellers an opportunity to view the red planet in extra detail.
In 2014 Mars reaches opposition on 8 April as Earth overtakes it in its orbit, although it is actually closest to Earth six days later on 14 April, putting Mars at just 90 million kilometres away. While it will be even closer in 2018, this is the closest to Earth it has been since 2003. The term ‘at opposition’ means that the object (in this case, Mars) Earth and the Sun are 180 degrees apart on the sky, so the object rises as the Sun sets.
Earth and Mars are getting closer by about 300km with every passing minute making any clear night in April a good time to view the red planet, after April Mars will get significantly smaller as Earth leaves it behind. To the naked eye, Mars will be very bright and noticeably reddish in colour. Through a good telescope, you may see distinctive dark markings. While these markings have been noted for centuries, it is only in the last 40 years, since the Mariner 4 expedition, that the markings have been understood as sporadic global dust storms and seasonal changes in polar ice coverage.
Learn more about Mars at Opposition from this video below the from NASA Science News. You can take a closer look at Mars in our courtyard telescopes, available after our night shows.