Today's post contributed by Michael Khan at ESOC. UPDATED 8.04 – corrected date for Mars & Spica to 17.07, and fixed several minor typos – Ed.
Once again, it's opposition time. While the Earth requires one year1 to complete a full revolution, a Mars year, due to the planet's wider orbit, lasts 687 days. As Earth and Mars are plying their separate orbits with different speeds, the distance between each varies considerably with time. But once in a period of just over two years, they are aligned in what astronomers call an opposition. On that date, seen from Earth, Mars is located almost exactly in the direction opposite from the Sun, so stargazers can see the Red Planet high in the sky at midnight, and closer and brighter than at any other time.
The distance from Earth to Mars during the years 2000 to 2019
Because the Mars orbit is eccentric (i.e., it is elongated rather than circular), not all oppositions are equal. Many of you will remember the one in the autumn of 2003, when Mars approached Earth to as close as 56 million kilometres. It appeared like a surprisingly bright red star. In 2014, opposition will take place on 8 April, but again because of the eccentricity of the orbits, closest approach will in fact be a few days later, on 14 April. The distance from the Blue to the Red Planet will then be 92 million kilometres – two-thirds more distant than in 2003, so Mars will appear only a third as bright as it did 11 years ago.
Admittedly, observing Mars in the night sky is a lot less spectacular than it was, and it will again be, as soon as the year 2018. But still, you should have a look. It's impossible to miss, all the more so because right now it is close to the star Spica in Virgo; Spica is special, because it is in fact not one, but two stars – and big ones at that – that are orbiting a common centre of mass at very close quarters. Spica is interesting, it's massive, it's bright... and it's blue! So you currently have the brilliant blue Spica and the brilliant red Mars both in approximately the same direction in the sky.
Surely you don't need any more coaxing than that to get you to do some stargazing – or do you? All right then... let's see which celestial bodies Mars will encounter in the course of the year. (Of course, we are talking about apparent encounters only, where the bodies involved appear to be separated by only a small angle. In terms of actual spatial distance, the distances will still be 'astronomical', with the exception of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, which will buzz Mars on 19 October 2014. But as avid readers of our blog, you already know that).
Here is a list of star parties to which Mars has been invited this year. You are welcome to join – no need to feel like a gate crasher. All these events will be easily visible to the human eye. Using a pair of binoculars or a telescope is optional, but not mandatory.
On 14 April, the full Moon encounters Mars and Spica
This is an easy one for starters. And what's more, it happens on the day, 14 April, when Mars is closest to the Earth. Directly in the south around midnight (all times in the star charts below are given in GMT) the full Moon will intrude between Mars and Spica.