By: Mike Wall
Published: 03/02/2012 09:52 AM EST on SPACE.com
UPDATE: See our latest skywatching tips to see Mars at opposition here: Mars Visible in Night Sky, But Its 2 Moons Are Hard to Spot
Mars will make a close approach to Earth Saturday (March 3), and interested skywatchers can follow the action live online.
Every 26 months, the orbits of Earth and Mars align such that the two planets form a relatively straight line with the sun. This cosmic event is called an opposition, because the Red Planet sits on the exact opposite side of Earth from the sun.
Mars will be in opposition to Earth Saturday, and it will be visible even to stargazers under the cloudiest of skies. That's because the online Slooh Space Camera will broadcast a free, real-time feed of the Mars opposition, beginning at 11:00 p.m. EST (0400 GMT on March 4).
Slooh will provide footage from multiple observatories around the world, including Arizona and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The broadcast can be accessed at Slooh's homepage, found here: http://events.slooh.com/
Though the opposition occurs Saturday, the Red Planet's actual closest approach to Earth won't come until Monday (March 5), when the two bodies are separated by about 62.6 million miles (100.7 million kilometers). This discrepancy in dates is caused by Mars' elliptical path around the sun. [Amazing Mars Photos]
The Red Planet's oval orbit also dictates that some oppositions bring it much closer to Earth than others. Saturday's opposition isn't one of the closer ones, because it occurs when Mars is near aphelion, or the farthest it gets from the sun during an orbit.
The Mars opposition of 2003, on the other hand, occurred when the Red Planet was near perihelion, or its closest distance to the sun. During that approach, Mars came within about 34.8 million miles (56 million kilometers) of our planet — the closest the two planets have been in nearly 60,000 years.
Skywatchers who want to observe the Mars opposition the old-fashioned way can find the Red Planet in the constellation Leo on Saturday. Mars will rise in the east at about the same time the sun sets in the west.
This sky map of the Mars opposition shows how the Red Planet will appear in the night sky.
Mars will outshine all the stars in Leo; it should be readily visible to the naked eye as an unblinking pale red dot. With a decent telescope, skywatchers should be able to see the Red Planet's ice caps and perhaps some other surface features.
This isn't the first time that the Slooh Space Camera has broadcast live views of cosmic events. Last month, for example, the online skywatching service webcast a live look at a rare triple conjunction that brought Venus, Jupiter and the moon close together in the night sky.
If you snap an amazing photo of Mars or any other skywatching target and would like to share it for a possible story or image gallery, please contact SPACE.com managing editor Tariq Malik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Our Solar System: A Photo Tour of the Planets
- Telescopes for Beginners — 2012 Reviews
- Skywatching Books: Sky Maps and Charts for Night Sky Viewing
LOOK: Pictures of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity Rover:
This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity is being tested in preparation for launch in the fall of 2011. In this picture, the rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. (NASA)
Technicians at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, put the instrument mast and science boom on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, known as Curiosity, through a series of deployment tests.
This photograph of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, was taken during testing on June 3, 2011 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity is being tested in preparation for launch in the fall of 2011. In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of. (NASA)
This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration. (NASA)
The payload fairing containing MSL rolls out of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. (NASA)
The payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is attached to the Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (NASA)