This week, stargazers in the UK will get the best view of Mars this decade has to offer – and they don’t need a telescope.
The Red Planet will be in opposition Thursday morning, meaning it will be in the opposite direction from the Sun relative to Earth.
It will appear larger and brighter in the sky because it is closest to Earth – about 81 million kilometers away.
Coincidentally, Mars will disappear behind the full moon at 04:58 GMT on Thursday morning — an event known as an occultation — before reappearing at 05:59 AM.
In the first half of December, observers in the Northern Hemisphere will enjoy their best view of Mars into the 2030s. The red planet will be high in the UK sky and appear brighter than any star. It will be unmistakable to the stars of Taurus, from the UK over Orion’s well-known pattern
According to Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society, the public will easily be able to see Mars this week in clear skies by looking east.
For people in the UK and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, Mars won’t be as good to see again until the 2030s.
What is Opposition?
Like all planets in our solar system, Earth and Mars revolve around the sun. But the Earth is closer to the sun and therefore races faster along its orbit.
Earth takes about 365.25 days to revolve around the sun, while Mars takes much longer — 687 Earth days.
So sometimes the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun, very far apart, and other times Earth catches up to its neighbor and passes relatively close to it.
These Mars oppositions — when Earth orbits between the Sun and Mars — occur about every 26 months.
“If you want to see Mars, go out after sunset when it’s dark and look east,” Dr Massey told MailOnline.
“It will be really obvious when you have a clear sky – a brilliant red dot.”
Dr. Massey said there are two events involving Mars on Thursday: “occultation” and “opposition.”
Occultation is the name given to the moon blocking Mars, while opposition means the Earth is between the sun and Mars.
Mars oppositions occur when the Earth passes in its orbit between the Sun and Mars — meaning the Sun and Mars are on opposite sides of the Earth.
Due to the orbits of the two planets, opposition occurs about every 26 months, but occultation and opposition happening together is much rarer and “very unusual,” Dr Massey said.
On Thursday, the exact point at which opposition occurs is at 5:35 a.m. – so just over halfway through the occultation, with Mars behind the moon.
“But the planet is close all December and that will be evident in January as well,” he added.
Mars’ “elliptical” (not perfectly circular) orbit means that some oppositions are better than others, and the planet will be further away than this month for the rest of this decade.
This sky chart shows Mars rising to the east. sky and appears a bright orange color as it will this week. The view here shows what it will look like at 6:42pm on December 7 from London
Like all planets in our solar system, Earth and Mars revolve around the sun. But the Earth is closer to the sun and therefore races faster along its orbit. Earth makes two trips around the sun in about the same amount of time it takes Mars to make one trip (687 Earth days). So sometimes the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun, very far apart, and other times Earth catches up to its neighbor and passes relatively close to it. These Mars oppositions — when Earth orbits between the Sun and Mars — occur about every 26 months
The Red Planet is in opposition – meaning that, as seen from Earth, it is opposite the Sun in the sky and thus shining brightly. Pictured is Mars captured by the Hubble telescope
Tips for stargazing
The further you are, the better the chance of a clear sky to see the stars.
Take a walk in your area and explore the area to find the perfect stargazing spot!
The further you are from light pollution, the more likely you are to see the stars.
Moons always rise in the east and set in the west – so follow this direction in your quest.
Turn off the lights
For those who watch the stars from the comfort of their home, turning off the lights indoors can improve visibility of the night sky, as long as you’re not afraid of the dark!
Artificial light can make it harder to see stars in the sky, so make sure it’s as dark as possible wherever you are.
SOURCE: Parkdean Resorts
During the night on Thursday, Mars will move closer and closer to the moon before disappearing behind it (“occultation”) at 4:58 a.m.
“In the hours before that eclipse occurs, the moon will be exactly to the right of it [Mars] in the air,” Dr. Massey said.
“If you kept staying up later, it’ll get closer and closer until it covers it.”
Aside from the UK, Mars (and its eclipse by the moon) will be visible in other parts of Western Europe, North America and North Africa.
Although Mars is easy to see with the naked eye, a small telescope will give the public a better view of its surface.
Looking through a telescope, careful observers can see the polar caps and dark markings on the surface.
“People want to know when they’ve seen planets and this is a really good opportunity to start looking at Mars,” said Dr Massey.
“This is a place that people talk about traveling to, this is a place where all these rovers are driving on the surface.
“Maybe there was life there once and maybe simple life still is, so if you want to know where that is, now is the time to go out and look for it.
The moon will also be a full moon this week, at 100 percent illumination, on Wednesday and Thursday.
The moon will also be a full moon this week, at 100 percent illumination, on Wednesday and Thursday
A full moon occurs once every 29.5 days – the time it takes for the moon to go through an entire lunar cycle.
When the full moon arrives in February, astronomers give it the name “cold moon” because it often coincides with the longest nights of the year.
Other names are the Snow moon in February coincide with heavy snowfall and the Worm Moon in March at a time when the sun was increasingly warming the soil and earthworms were becoming active.
NAMES OF THE FULL MOON AND THEIR MEANING
January: wolf moon because wolves were heard more often during this time.
February: Snow moon coincide with heavy snowfall.
March: Worm moon as the sun warmed the ground more and more and earthworms became active.
April: pink moon because it heralded the appearance of Phlox subulata or moss pink – one of the first spring flowers.
Be able to: Flower Moon because of the abundance of blossoms.
June: Strawberry moon because it appeared when the strawberry harvest first took place.
July: Buck Moon as it arrived when a male deer’s antlers were in full growth.
August: Sturgeon Moon after the big fish that was easy to catch at the time.
September: Corn moon because this was the time to harvest corn.
October: Hunters Moon after the time to hunt in preparation for winter.
November: Beaver moon because it was time to set up beaver traps.
December: Cold moon because the nights were longest at this time of year.
Source: Old Farmer’s Almanac