July is the “Summer of Mars,” so it’s only fitting that the red planet will be wrapping up the month with its most spectacular show yet — a close encounter.
On July 31, Mars will be 35.8 million miles from Earth, the closest distance it has been to Earth in 15 years.
What is Mars Close Approach?
Close Approach is the point in Mars’ orbit at which it comes closest to Earth. The minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth—34.6 million miles—in nearly 60,000 years. A close encounter with Earth like this won’t happen again until the year 2287. But, there will be another Mars close encounter in October 2020 when the distance between Mars and Earth will be 38.6 million miles.
Why does it happen?
The distance between Earth and Mars changes throughout the year due to their elliptical shaped paths. Additionally, gravitational pull of the planets within our solar system constantly affects the shape of their orbits, moving Mars’ orbit even closer to the Earth.
Although Mars reached its closest point in 15 years when most of us were still asleep at around 3:50 a.m. ET, there’s no need to worry. The red planet will continue to appear at its brightest until early August, so you could enjoy Mars’ close encounter with Earth for days.
Here’s how to get the best views of Mars’ close encounter with Earth
Although people viewing Mars from low latitudes and from the Southern Hemisphere will have the clearest view of the the Red Planet, Mars will be visible worldwide.
Luckily, you can see Mars easily with the naked eye. Add a telescope and you can see a detailed view of the planet’s surface and its polar caps.
The Red Planet will appear super bright with an orange-red tint making it nearly impossible to miss in the nighttime sky. Mars looks like a bright, red star in the east every evening and in the west before dawn.
Mars reaches its highest point in the sky around midnight, approximately 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one-third of the distance between the horizon and overhead.
For about two months between July 7 and Sept. 7, Mars will glow even brighter, outshining Jupiter and earning the title of the fourth-brightest object in Earth’s sky after Venus, the moon, and the sun. As sunsets begin creeping up even earlier in late summer and early autumn, viewers will be able to see the planet higher in the evening sky.
As for novice astronomers who might be a little bummed they missed the 3:50 a.m. wake up call, NASA streamed Mars’ close encounter with Earth live from the Griffith Observatory.