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How to See Mars Opposition and Closest Approach to Earth

For the past few weeks, the red planet has been growing brighter in the night sky, and everyone in the world can enjoy it at its closest approach.

Mars seen from Alberta, Canada, in 2007. A Mars opposition is so-called because Mars and the sun are directly opposite of each other on either side of Earth.CreditAlan Dyer/ESA/NASA

Perhaps you’ve already noticed the dazzling red dot dancing in the night sky. That’s Mars, our planetary neighbor. And for the past few weeks it has been growing brighter as it slowly approaches a state that astronomers call opposition, when it and the sun are on opposite sides of Earth. It’s like we’re in between the two right now in a cosmic game of monkey in the middle.

This will occur on Friday, July 27, and everyone in the world can watch, weather permitting.

How often does Mars opposition occur?

Earth and Mars align with the sun in opposition about once every two years.

But truly jaw-dropping midnight views of Mars happen every 15 to 17 years. That’s when opposition occurs when Mars is at perihelion, or its closest position to the sun, according to Rich Zurek, project scientist for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This upcoming opposition will be one of those moments.

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When does Mars reach its closest approach?

Mars will be at its closest to Earth before sunrise on July 31 at around 4 a.m. Eastern Time, according to EarthSky.org.

Because Mars and Earth have elliptical orbits rather than perfectly circular ones, opposition and the closest approach between the two planets do not happen at the same time. Mars’s orbit around the sun takes about two Earth years to complete. If the two planets orbited the sun along perfectly circular orbits that were in the same plane, then Mars’s closest approach would happen on the same day as opposition.

In 2003, Mars was at its closest approach to Earth in about 60,000 years, Dr. Zurek said. At that point, it was only about 34.65 million miles away from Earth, according to EarthSky.org.

On average, Mars is about 140 million miles from Earth, according to NASA, and at the farthest, they are about 250 million miles apart, according to Space.com. The close approach happening this month will be the closest since 2003, at a distance of about 35.8 million miles away from Earth, according to NASA.

NASA tends to launch its space missions to Mars during times of closest approach, or every two years. For example, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, were launched in 2003, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2005 and the Mars Phoenix Lander in 2007.

The next closest approach will be in October 2020, and the next super-close opposition will be in September 2035.

A Mars viewing party in Los Angeles in 2003, when it was only 34.65 million miles away, its closest approach in 60,000 years.CreditRobyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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