May 30 marks the day where Mars comes closest to our home planet, the Earth. It will reach its highest point around midnight, and will be just a short 46.8 million miles away. But from now until then? Mars will be brightly visible in our inky skies for much of these spring evenings. So what? Mars won’t be this close to us again until July of 2018- so pull on your fuzzy socks, drag your sweater over your head, and settle in a chair outside to enjoy watching an illuminated Mars with your bare eyes.
From May 18 to June 3 Mars will be at its brightest for the entire year. The optimal position for Mars to be bright is when Mars is almost directly opposite the sun. When Mars reaches this point, it makes its closest approach to Earth, and it also creates a line-up between Mars, the Earth, and the sun. Thus, Mars appears its largest and its brightest. A planet’s “opposition” happens when Earth passes between that planet and the sun, and Mars’ opposition is said to occur on May 22.
This May, Mars will come closer to Earth than it has in over a decade, but by mid-June Mars will already appear to be less bright and grand. Therefore, now is quite literally your chance to see Mars up close and personal. Mars is the second-smallest planet in the solar system and is terrestrial with a thin atmosphere, making it a relative to Earth, even if a rather decrepit and dusty one.
Given the hype surrounding whether or not humans will actually give colonizing Mars a go in the near future, it’s exciting to see our uninhabited and rather desolate cousin face-to-face before any plans are set in motion. Perhaps, in a few decades, or at least a few centuries, we’ll be marking a planet’s opposition by whether or not Mars has passed between it and the sun.
For now, we can enjoy having the opportunity to step out into the cool evening air and ogle a planet so infinitely far away, and yet so comparably close to our own.