Developing

Opposition of Mars 2014: Sun, Earth and Mars to Align to Make Red Planet Brightest for Six Years

The Sun, Earth and Mars will align tomorrow night in a celestial event that only takes place once every few years.

Mars will appear at its brightest for the last six years on the night of 8 April, and stargazers should be able to see the red planet from sunset to sunrise on 9 April.

The opposition of Mars occurs when Earth comes closest to Mars for the year. However, this year's is of particular significance because Earth will pass between the Sun and Mars at a particularly close distance, making the red planet the brightest it has been since December 2007.

Earth will come 0.621 astronomical units (92.9 million kilometres, 57.7m miles) from Mars. Six and a half years ago it was 0.600AU (89.7m km) from our planet.

According to Earthsky.org, Mars will rise on our night sky and remain there all night: "At or near opposition, Earth comes closest to Mars for the year. Earth is passing between the sun and Mars now, so the distance between our two planets is least, and Mars, in turn, shines most brilliantly in our sky.

"Oppositions of Mars are not created equal. Mars is closer to us, and brighter, at this opposition than it has been since December of 2007.

"As viewed through a telescope around opposition time, Mars' disk not only covers more area of sky, but Mars' surface reflects the light of the sun most directly back to Earth. These factors make Mars all the brighter.

"Quite literally, this is Mars' day in the sun. Take advantage, for Mars won't be returning to opposition again until 22 May, 2016 ... Watch for Mars in the east in the evening, at its highest around midnight, and in the west in the hours before dawn."

Explaining how the celestial event happens, Space.com said that because Earth is closer to the Sun, it travels faster. With Mars further away, it takes longer to orbit (687 days), so by the time the red planet has completed one circuit, Earth has sped ahead.

The other problem is that the two planets are not on exact circles, so each opposition of Mars is different distance-wise.

While this year's opposition may mean Mars appears extremely bright, in four years' time it will be even more spectacular. On 27 July 2018, Earth will be just 0.386AU (57.7m km) from Mars.