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Don't Miss Your Socially Distanced Date With Mars

NASA's diagram of Mars opposition shows the Sun, the Earth and Mars lining up every two years.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA's diagram of Mars opposition shows the Sun, the Earth and Mars lining up every two years.

Stargazers perk up — Mars is getting big and bright the coming week, as the sun, Earth and Mars line up close to a new moon on the night of Oct. 13.

The event that happens about every two years is called "opposition" in astronomy terms: the sun and Mars on opposite sides of Earth. From the earthling's perspective, according to NASA, Mars rises in the east just as the sun sets in the west, and would stay up in the sky the whole night, setting in the west just as the sun rises.

Because we're seeing the whole dayside of the red planet the whole week, it's going to be ideal for viewing, writes Mikhail Kreslavsky, assistant research planetary scientist at University of California, Santa Cruz, in an email to NPR.

And because this year's opposition is also close to the new moon, Mars will shine brighter without moonlight hampering, he writes.

The Mars opposition is related to "Mars close approach," which is the point where Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun. That happened on Oct. 6. Therefore, Mars is pretty large in size.

"[Usually] for people who are amateur astronomers with a decent-sized telescope, Mars would still look like a dot," astronomer Derek Demeter told the podcast Are We There Yet? last week.

"Now we're getting really close to Mars, the apparent size has tripled almost [in the telescope]" said Demeter, who directs Seminole State College's planetarium.

"I was able to pick out surface features you're never able to see ... where Opportunity has landed ... all these areas where the rovers have landed, where we might go," he said about his stargazing experience a few days earlier.

The year 2020 has seen its share of Martian exploration launches. The U.S. launched a six-wheeled Rover called Perseverance; the United Arab Emirates launched its first mission ever to Mars, and China launched its Tianwen-1 projectto send an orbiter, lander and rover to the red planet in one effort, reaching for a first successful Mars mission.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team. She helps with reporting, research, and production both on the team and in the network. She was the primary data reporter on Coal's Deadly Dust, a project investigating black lung disease's resurgence. The project won an Edward Murrow Award and NASEM Communications award, and was nominated for a George Foster Peabody award.