The Fourth Rock comes closer to us on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, than it has for the past seven years. Not only is the Red Planet in opposition—-directly in line with both earth and the sun—but the opposition is “favorable.” Mars has a slightly elliptical orbit and it will be closer to the sun (perihelion) than usual. For more detail, the Weather Channel has a great explanatory video.
We’re still talking 57.4 million miles (92.4 million km) away, and you still have to be patient with an amateur telescope. However, tonight observers will be able to see a white polar cap and some subtle variations in the planet’s rusty-red terrain. The show’s on from most backyards all night long, weather permitting.
National Geographic’s Andrew Fazekas describes what you’ll be seeing:
“The first feature that will catch your eye will be the frosty north polar cap. Consisting of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice), the caps glow bright white and appear conspicuous because the planet’s northern hemisphere is now tilted some 23 degrees toward Earth.… Your eyes [will] begin to pick out subtle details of the soft Martian surface features. A small backyard scope (with at least a four-inch mirror) will begin to reveal a pattern of light and dark shadings similar to those seen on our moon. With handy up-to-date maps now available online, identifying a variety of markings becomes possible.”
From Weather.com senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman: “With the exceptions of South Florida, northern New England, parts of the Tennessee Valley, western Washington, and northwest Oregon, you should have a clear view of this Mars opposition.”
If you’re in one of the less accessible spots, lack a telescope, or are under clouds, you can still catch an amazing live tour of the celestial event on the web. Astronomers Without Borders and the Virtual Telescope Project will host Night of the Red Planet tonight from a large telescope with astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, astronomer guide. The show’s on at The Virtual Telescope‘s WebTV at 7 p.m. EST.
Facebook and flickr will also be sharing, and the twitter hashtag is #GAM2014 (@gam_awb).