The bright red light in the night sky this month is not a trick of the imagination. It’s Mars, and the planet won’t be this close to Earth for another 15 years.
October is a great time to view Mars as is. The planet is visible all night during the month and reaches its highest point in the sky around midnight, according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
This year’s period of “excellent visibility” is unique, though, NASA said. On Oct. 6, Mars will come within nearly 39 million miles of Earth’s orbit, making for exceptional viewing.
The Red Planet comes this close to Earth just once or twice every 15 or 17 years, according to NASA.
“That is the point in Mars’ orbit when it comes closest to Earth, this time at about 38.6 million miles (62.07 million kilometers) from our planet,” NASA described. “Mars will be visible for much of the night in the southern sky and is at its highest point at about midnight.”
The close orbit also coincides with “opposition,” when Mars finds itself directly on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, NASA said. The celestial event occurs every two years.
When the two planets are close to each other, Mars appears “very bright” in the sky and can be seen easier through a telescope or with the naked eye, according to NASA.
“The Red Planet is at its brightest in the sky, so don’t miss it,” the agency said.
The two neighboring planets have come closer to each other in the past.
In 2003, Mars made its nearest approach to Earth in almost 60,000 years, with the planets’ centers measuring roughly 34.6 million miles from one another. The Red Planet will not come that close again until more than 250 years from now in 2287.
NASA noted that because Mars and Earth are so close this year, it is the best time to make expeditions to the neighboring planet.
“Many Mars missions have taken advantage of the close distance to visit the red planet,” NASA said. “That’s why, depending on budgets, you’ll often see that Mars missions launch about every two years.”
Spacecrafts from multiple different countries are currently journeying to the planet, including NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, which is scheduled to land there in February 2021, the agency said.
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