Mars lights up night sky as it comes closest to Earth

The planet will be visible for much of 2020 and early next year

Skywatchers in Kerala are delighted that Mars will be visible to the naked eye in a rare celestial configuration that coincides with World Space Week which is observed from October 4 to 10.

Mars rises by 7 p.m. and sets about 7 a.m. and can be seen in the easterly direction of the sky as a reddish spot. The red planet can easily be identified because it does not twinkle like stars. Mars can be observed in the eastern sky between 9 p. m. and 5 a. m., says GangadharanVellur, a skywatcher who runs an observatory at Payyannur.

P.N. Thankachan, secretary of the State unit of the Breakthrough Science Society in Kottayam, says the iron oxide on the surface of Mars gives it a red complexion.

This time, Mars’s orbit came closest to Earth on October 6, at 62.07 million km. Mars will be visible for much of 2020 and early next year. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. It would not be that close again until the year 2287. The red planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years. Next Mars Close Approach is in 2022.

If Earth and Mars had perfectly circular orbits, their minimum distance would always be the same. However, they have elliptical paths. In addition, gravitational tugging by planets constantly changes the shape of their orbits a little bit. The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted with respect to each other. While Earth only takes 365 days to complete an orbit around the Sun, Mars takes 687 days.

Along with Mars, skywatchers will also be able to see Jupiter and Saturn in the western sky from 8 p.m. about five degrees above the horizon as bright balls, which do not twinkle. Saturn can be seen as an yellowish ball. This is because of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurs every 20 years. The conjunction officially occurs on December 21, 2020.

(With inputs from agencies)

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