April 19, 2021

Mars Will Be At Its Closest To Earth Since 2003. It Won’t Be This Close Until 2035

Two full moons aren’t the only spectacular celestial events of October. This week, Mars is making its closest approach to Earth until 2035 — and to see it, all skywatchers need to do is look up.

Mars will shine bright all month long, but there are two rare days to watch out for: October 6, when Mars makes its close approach, and October 13, when the red planet is in opposition.

In the early morning of 6th October, Mars made its closest approach to Earth since 2003 — but if you missed it, the Red Planet is still a magnificent sight to see in the night sky. Humanity will have to wait another 17 years for Mars to be closer, NASA says.

At 3:50 a.m. EDT (0750 GMT), Mars reached the closest point to Earth in its orbit. The Red Planet hadn’t been that close to Earth since August 2003. (And when this last approach occurred, it was the first time in 60,000 years that Mars had come so close.) This occurrence follows last week’s Mars event: On Friday (July 27), the Red Planet reached opposition with the sun and remained at its brightest in the night sky through Monday night and early today (July 31). [Mars at Opposition 2018: How to See It]

Photo: Stock Photos from Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

According to NASA, Mars was 35.8 million miles (57.6 million kilometers) from Earth at its closest point this morning. Mars won’t approach any closer to Earth until September 2035, NASA officials said.

In August 2003, Mars was a smidge closer: 34.6 million miles (55.6 million km). Mars won’t be that close to Earth until 2287, according to a NASA update. Mars will reach opposition again before then. In October 2020, the Red Planet will reach opposition and will be 38.6 million miles (62.1 million km) from Earth, according to NASA’s update.

You can see Mars tonight by looking to the southwestern sky. Weather permitting, Mars will be visible low on the southwestern horizon, with the moon shining to the upper left. Saturn will also be visible, as shown in the map below.

A map of the sky that shows Mars and Saturn, as they can be seen from New York on July 31 at 11 pm. (Image credit: Starry Night software)

As you can see in this video below, Mars and Earth are both on slightly elliptical orbits, which means they can occasionally get very close to each other.

The closest possible encounter is when Earth is the furthest away from the Sun (aphelion) and Mars is the closest to the Sun (perihelion). At this point, the two would be at the minimum 54.6 million kilometers (33.9 million miles) apart.

This configuration is called an opposition, and it happens every two years or so. But we’ve never actually recorded us hitting that perfect ‘closest’ point.

The closest approach we’ve ever recorded happened back in 2003, with just 55.7 million kilometres separating us with Mars. Two years ago, 2018 was pretty close too, with just 57.6 million kilometres (35.8 million miles) between us.

Unfortunately though, we’re getting further and further out of alignment with our closest neighbour and won’t start getting closer again until 2029, culminating in a very close approach in 2035 – only 56.9 million kilometres (35.4 million miles) apart – so start planning your 2035 Mars watching schedule well in advance!

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed Mars on July 18, near its closest approach to Earth since 2003. NASA

At the other end of the scale from an opposition is a conjunction, when the two planets are furthest from each other. They can end up a 401 million kilometres (250 miles) away from each other. This occurs when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun and both in their aphelion.

It’s for this reason that space organisations take advantage of the short distance between our planets when these windows arise. This year was a peak opportunity for many missions to the Red Planet.

If you remember, Mars One planned to launch a Mars lander in 2020 before it um, never did that.

But three missions did successfully take off. NASA’s Perseverance rover is close to half way through its journey to the red planet after blasting off back in July, while two other missions left for Mars in the same two-week window.

The next lot of Mars missions – like the Mars Sample Return – will be travelling in 2022, but they’ll have to travel an extra 20 million kilometres, as we’ll be at a distance of 81.5 million kilometres (50.6 million miles) at our closest approach during this time.

So this week is a pretty special opportunity that we won’t have again until 2035. Make sure you wave to Mars as it goes past!