Mars and Earth both orbit the sun, but at different distances, and thus, different speeds. Every two years or so, Mars, Earth and the sun form a straight line during the course of their orbits, with Earth in the middle — an event known as opposition.
This summer, opposition occurs on July 27, and Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth at 3:50 a.m. EDT (0750 GMT) on July 31. The Red Planet will also be at its brightest since 2003, when Mars made its closest approach to Earth in almost 60,000 years. [Amazing Mars Photos by NASA's Curiosity Rover (Latest Images)]
Closest since 2003
During the Mars opposition in 2003, the Red Planet was only 34.6 million miles (55.8 million kilometers) from Earth. This was the closest the two planets had come to each other in almost 60,000 years, and this record won't be broken until Aug. 28, 2287, according to NASA.
In comparison, when Mars is on the other side of the sun and thus at its greatest distance from Earth, it is about 250 million miles (401 million km) away. However, the average distance between the two planets is roughly 140 million miles (225 million km).
Leading up to this year's opposition in July, Mars will continue to brighten in our sky. By June 26, Mars will be just 44 million miles (70.8 million km) away, and from the perspective of skywatchers on Earth, it will appear five times brighter than usual. By the time the Red Planet reaches its closest point to Earth, it will be a mere 35.8 million miles (57.6 million km) away and will have nearly doubled in brightness since June 26.
What, exactly, is an opposition?
Mars orbits the sun at a greater distance than Earth. As the distances increase, the orbital period also increases, so Mars takes about two Earth years to complete one orbit around the sun. Due to these different orbital speeds, every two years or so, Earth passes between Mars and the sun. This means that Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth.
Also, because Mars is directly opposite the sun during opposition, Mars rises as the sun sets, and it sets as the sun rises. As a result, the Red Planet shines prominently in our night sky.
However, since both planets have elliptical orbits, some Earth-Mars encounters are closer than others. In July, Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been since 2003, though the Red Planet's next-closet approach won't occur until 2035.
In addition, this year, Mars will reach what is called "perihelic opposition". Perihelion refers to the point in Mars' orbit when it's closest to the sun. Therefore, when Mars is closest to the sun, it is even closer to Earth during opposition.
How to see Mars
For about two months, between July 7 and Sept. 7 this year, Mars will brighten dramatically, outshining Jupiter and moving up in rank as the fourth-brightest object in Earth's sky after Venus, the moon and the sun. [Previewing 2018's Year of Spectacular Mars Using Mobile Apps]
Throughout May, both Mars and Saturn will be visible, and the best views will be in the predawn hours of the Northern Hemisphere. Mars is easily distinguished by its reddish color, while Saturn appears golden. Mars will move east of Saturn by mid-May, into the constellation Capricornus, according to EarthSky.org.
Starting in mid-June, Mars will officially enter the evening sky and noticeably brighten and grow in size, leading up to opposition on July 27. The planet will appear brightest between July 21 and Aug. 3. As sunsets occur earlier in late summer and early autumn, viewers will be able to see the planet higher in the evening sky.
Beware of the Mars Hoax
In 2003, during that year's epic Mars conjunction, a hoax that went viral claimed that Mars would be as big as the moon. Since then, the meme comes up every now and then, usually around September, and it may rear its ugly head again this year.
But don't be fooled — while Mars will shine big and brightly leading up to and during opposition, the Red Planet is only about half the size of Earth. This means that even at its closest approach this summer, it will only be 24.3 arc seconds across when viewed from Earth. In comparison, the angular diameter of the moon is 1,800 arc seconds, which is about 75 times larger.