Stargazers in the northern hemisphere are in for a treat this week, as Mars has reached its closest point to Earth, offering the best view of the red planet into the 2030s. Mars was closest to Earth on the night of November 30-December 1, but the best prospects are yet to come when the planet reaches a point known as opposition on the night of December 7-8 becomes. Opposition is when Mars is directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth, meaning Mars is at its brightest at that time.
The reason the closest approach and opposition are a few days apart is due to the elliptical nature of the planets’ orbits. Neither Earth nor Mars orbit the Sun in a perfect circle, so there are times when they are a little closer and a little further away. These small differences explain the delay of a few days between closest approach and opposition. The elliptical nature of Mars’ orbit is also why there will be such a great view of the planet this week. Mars won’t be that close to Earth until 2033.
This chart from Britain’s Royal Astronomy Society shows how to find Mars in the night sky on the evening of December 8th. Mars should be one of the brightest objects in the sky, so if you’re lucky enough to have clear weather overhead at night you should be able to easily spot the planet with binoculars or a telescope. By that time, Mars will be about 80 million kilometers away.
December 8 is also a great time to search for Mars as you may be able to see the moon moving in front of the planet, known as its eclipse, depending on where you are in the northern hemisphere. For exact times for this event by US region, visit Sky and Telescope for more information.
According to Sky at Night magazine, you should be able to view Mars with almost any telescope, but adding a Barlow lens to your setup will give you a better view and enhance the dimmer and brighter spots on the planet. You may be able to see features on Mars such as its polar ice caps, its bright and dark patches called albedo features, and maybe even certain large geological features like basins and plains.
Some of the most dramatic views of Mars will be seen on the night of December 8th, but if that doesn’t work for you, be sure to check the skies for the week before and after that date as well, as you should still be able to then you a good view