Mars's Close Approach to Earth—How and When to Catch This Spectacular Astronomical Treat

Mars is approaching its closest distance to Earth in 15 years. On July 31, it will sit just 36,000,000 miles from our planet. That might sound pretty far, but in solar system terms, it's incredibly close.

This means Mars will appear bigger and brighter than usual. Even if you missed Friday morning's opposition—where Earth traveled between the red planet and the sun—Mars is still remarkably bright in the night sky—and it will be for several weeks.

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Global color views of Mars, which is approaching its closest distance to Earth in 15 years. USGS/JPL/NASA

On Friday, Mars will be visible from sunset, but NASA recommends waiting until midnight to get the best view, as the red planet will sit higher in the sky. Mars will be visible for several months, but it will appear smaller as we move into autumn.

"When you first spot Mars rising in the east after sunset, you'll be startled by how bright it looks," noted Sky & Telescope observing editor Diana Hannikainepn. "Its pale orange color is unmistakable."

If you're Mars-gazing tonight or over the next few months, look to the constellation Capricornus to catch a glimpse of the glowing planet. Mars will sit to the south of the half-goat half-fish pattern of stars. You don't need a telescope to catch the ocher orb, because it will shine so brightly.

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On July 31st, Earth and Mars will be separated by just 35.8 million miles (57.6 million km), their closest pairing in 15 years. So the planet looks much brighter, and telescopically it appears much bigger, as shown by the highlighted image at left. Sky & Telescope

For much of the world, a blood moon will add to Mars's red domination of the skies Friday night (or Saturday morning, depending on your location). But if you live somewhere outside the viewing zone—like the U.S.—you can catch the event online with such websites as the Virtual Telescope Project or Timeanddate.com. You can check if and when you're in the viewing zone on this map.

Virtual Telescope Project astronomer Gianluca Masi recently announced the livestream would take place from the historic Roman Forum in Rome, facing the city's iconic Colosseum.

If you have your own telescope, you'll get a clearer picture of the red orb than with the naked eye. Surface details, however, will be obscured by a dust storm that's been raging across the planet for several weeks. If you don't have your own telescope, find out if your local observatory is hosting a viewing party for Friday's eclipse or Tuesday's close approach.

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A dust storm first noticed on Mars in late May has since engulfed the entire planets, as underscored by these images of the same hemisphere taken one month apart by amateur astronomers Damian Peach (left) and Christophe Pellier (right). Damian Peach/Christophe Pellier/Sky & Telescope

If you don't want to head outside in the dead of night to watch the approach, Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles will be live streaming the event from 10 p.m. PT Monday July 30 (1:00 a.m. Tuesday ET) till 1.30 a.m. PT Tuesday (4:30 a.m. ET Tuesday).

The event will be canceled if the weather isn't favorable. But don't worry—Mars will continue to stun for weeks. The planet will be far brighter than Jupiter at its peak, EarthSky reported, and it will continue to outshine the gas giant until September.

Mars's Close Approach to Earth—How and When to Catch This Spectacular Astronomical Treat | Tech & Science