Mars will give amateur astronomers on Earth their best chance to see the red planet in six years.
The evenings of 8 April and 14 April will offer a close approach of the two planets, providing amateur astronomers a great chance to view the red planet. Mars should brighten during the week, until it is as bright as the brightest star in the sky, Sirius.
Elliptical orbits of the two worlds will cause the planets to make their closest approach since December 2007. Mars and Earth can be as far as 250 million miles apart from each other, as they orbit the Sun. During this close approach, called an opposition, Mars and the Earth will be just 57 million miles distant.
Mars is one of the most popular targets for amateur astronomers and is easy to find, even in inexpensive telescopes. To see the planet, go out in the evening about an hour after sunset and look to the east-southeast. You should see a distinct red light in the sky. On the night of 14 April, the planet will be located above the Moon. Night owls will get the best views of the planet, as Mars rises over the course of the first part of the evening, reaching its greatest altitude above the horizon after midnight.
Without a telescope, Mars is a wonderful view for anyone under a clear sky. Using a simple telescope, it is possible to see polar ice caps on Mars, as well as clearly make out the planet's rusty surface. Slightly larger telescopes, measuring six inches across or greater, can sometimes reveal seasonal changes on the surface of the world.
Mars gives children a great chance to become familiar with astronomy. The red planet is a favorite viewing target for most kids, along with Saturn.
Earth and Mars make close approaches to one another about once every 26 months. While our home world takes one year to go around the Sun, Mars takes 687 days to complete its journey. The next time an opposition occurs, in 2016, the approach will be even closer than the one taking place this month.
"On April 8 Mars reaches opposition... when it's directly opposite the sun in our sky... Mars rises in the East in the early evening and is visible all night long... The viewing will be best a little after midnight, when the red planet reaches its highest elevation. Some of the famous dark markings - and possibly the polar cap - will be visible, even in a small telescope," Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported in a video.
Orbits are not true circles, but are other forms of ellipses. Because of this, the exact distance of close approach changes from year to year.