See that bright thing in the sky? Mars is calling

ST. GEORGE — The Egyptians were the first to discover that unlike the stars, the planets aren’t “fixed” and noted five bright planets. That includes the “Red One,” which the Romans referred to as Mars. This month, the red planet that is closer to Earth than it will be for another 15 years, according to NASA.

Overlay of the Interactive Night Sky Map simulating sky above Salt Lake City, with Mars shown in upper center of image | Image courtesy of TimeandDate, St. George News

During a close approach, Mars appears very bright in the night sky. So bright, in fact, that it can’t be missed with the naked eye. The planet only makes such a close approach once or twice every 15-17 years.

Close in astronomical terms, since even at its closest, Mars is still nearly 34 million miles away.

With clear skies on the horizon in Southern Utah, Mars can be seen through an unobstructed view, starting at 7:30 p.m., and the planet will set shortly after 8:20 a.m. the following morning, making for an all-night show, according to TimeandDate.

The variation in distance from one year to the next has to do with orbits, gravity and tilt. As Mars and Earth journey around the sun, they do not have perfectly circular orbits, otherwise the minimum distance between the two planets would always be the same. Instead, the planets have elliptical orbits, or egg-shaped, and both orbits are slightly tilted, so a close approach takes place when both Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun, according to NASA.

Gravity also has an effect on the orbit of Mars, which is primarily affected by the gravitational pull of Jupiter, but Earth’s gravity also tugs on the planet, which can create slight changes in the planet’s orbital direction as it makes its 687-day journey around the sun.

Clips from a video created by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory can be viewed at the top of this report. 

Infographic shows the configuration of Earth, Mars, and the Sun during opposition | Image courtesy of NASA, St. George News

This year’s close approach also coincides with opposition, or when Mars is directly on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun – a planetary lineup that happens every two years – which means that Mars is at its brightest.

The closest encounter with Mars took place in 2003, NASA says, and it was the closest encounter with Earth in nearly 60,000 years.

That phenomena also led to the infamous “Mars Hoax” that was widely circulated through the internet and email in 2003, entitled “Mars Spectacular,” promising sky watchers that Mars would appear as large as the full moon, “at a modest 75-power magnification,” a disclaimer that many recipients didn’t see due to a line break in the email, leaving them unaware that a telescope would be needed. Nevertheless, the message went viral.

In reality, if Mars were to appear as big as the moon in the night sky, then according to NASA, “we’d be in big trouble given the gravitational pulls on Earth, Mars, and our Moon.”

Later in the month, on Halloween, the night sky will be illuminated by a “Blue Moon;” the second full moon in a month, the first being the “Harvest Moon” that showcased Oct. 1, a phenomena that only happens about every two and one-half years on average, according to NASA’s National Space Science Data Center.

Thus the term, “once in a blue moon.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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