Planetary Alignment: How To See Mars Closest To Earth In The Next Few Days [VIDEO]

By Ben Wolford on April 8, 2014 3:22 PM EDT

Mars will align with the Earth and the sun Tuesday night, then make its closest approach on April 14. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Mars will align with the Earth and the sun Tuesday night, then make its closest approach on April 14. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Look to the eastern skies this week to catch the brightest glimpse of Mars in about seven years. The Earth is swiftly catching up to the slower-orbiting Red Planet, and the two will align with the sun Tuesday night. Then by April 14, Mars and Earth will be reach the closest distance of the two planets' orbits — 57 million miles, which is just a six-month spacecraft ride for NASA's rockets.

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"If the orbits of Mars and Earth were perfectly circular, April 8 would also be the date of closest approach," according to NASA. "However, planetary orbits are elliptical — that is, slightly egg-shaped — so the actual date of closest approach doesn't come until almost a week later."

Most times of the year, Mars rises at some time during the night and sets after the sun has already come up. But on Tuesday night, Mars and the sun will be on opposite sides of the Earth, a phenomenon astronomers call "the opposition of Mars," meaning the planet will be visible all night. What makes the oppositions most interesting is that Mars, by definition, is very close to Earth, which allows for unequaled views. An amateur astronomer in Australia took this picture last month with a 16-inch telescope.

Oppositions take place every 26 months, but some take Mars closer to Earth than others. The 2003 opposition was the closest Mars approach in more than 50,000 years, according to NASA. The next time it will be closer is 2287.

The April 14 close approach will still be remarkable, though. Mars will appear brighter (in a reddish kind of way) than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Incidentally, the night of April 14 is also a lunar eclipse, meaning the Earth will drift between the moon and the sun, blocking direct light. It won't make the moon invisible, though. Instead it will appear red to North Americans — a so-called "Blood Moon" — because all the scattered light of all the sunsets and sunrises on Earth will be cast upon it. Oh, one more thing: April 14 is also a full moon. (Seriously.)

If you want to see Mars any night in the next couple of weeks, simply look to the east to watch it rise in the constellation Virgo. On a clear night it'll be pretty bright and easily seen without a telescope, even in the city.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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