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Watch for Mars near moon on April 13-14

The moon will be close to Mars as darkness falls on April 13. The night after, on April 14-15, the full moon will again be close to Mars, and staging a total lunar eclipse.

Tonight for April 13, 2014

Total lunar eclipse for the Americas April 14-15

We passed between Mars and the sun on April 8, and thus April 2014 presents the red planet Mars at its brightest and best since December 2007. It will not be this bright again until May 2016. On the night of April 13, Mars is visible near the moon as soon as darkness falls, and Mars comes closest to Earth for the year on April 14, at 13:00 Universal Time (9:00 a.m. EDT, 8:00 a.m. CDT, 7:00 a.m. MDT or 6:00 a.m. PDT). So during the night of April 14-15, Mars’ closest approach to Earth will have barely passed as the moon undergoes a total lunar eclipse, visible from the Americas. So … wow!

On April 13, as Earth spins beneath the heavens, watch for the moon and Mars to swing upward during the evening hours and to climb highest up for the night around midnight. Afterwards, the moon and Mars will sink westward, to sit over the western horizon as the predawn darkness starts to give way to dawn.

Although Earth flew between Mars and the sun on April 8, bringing Mars opposite the sun in our sky (opposition), Mars actually comes closest to Earth on April 14. Generally speaking, Earth in its orbit always swings closest to Mars at or near opposition. But our two worlds might not be precisely closest on the exact opposition date. The period of time between a Mars’ opposition and Mars’ least distance can be as long as 8.5 days (1969) or less than 10 minutes (2208).

Because Mars has such an eccentric (oblong) orbit, Martian oppositions are far from being equal. This year, in 2014, Mars at its nearest point is a little over 92 million kilometers distant. But two years from now – on May 22, 2016 – Mars will be only a little over 75 million kilometers away. Two years after that – on July 31, 2018 – Mars will be less than 58 million kilometers distant. It’ll be Mars closest approach to Earth since August 27, 2003, and until September 11, 2035.

When Mars is far from the sun, as on March 3, 2012, it's a particularly distant opposition. But when Mars is near the sun, as on August 28, 2003, it's an extra-close opposition.  Diagram via Sydney Observatory.

The inner dark circle represents Earth’s orbit around the sun; the outer dark circle represents Mars’ orbit. When Mars is near the sun, as it was in 2003, we have an extra-close opposition. On the other hand, 2012 was a particularly distant opposition of Mars because Mars was far from the sun in its orbit. At the 2014 opposition, Mars is getting closer to the sun again and therefore it’ll be closer to us than it was in 2012. But it’s not as close at this opposition as it will be in 2018. Diagram via Sydney Observatory.

Extra-close Martian oppositions that bring Mars less than 56 million kilometers (35 million miles) from Earth occur in late August or early September. During the celebrated opposition of August 28, 2003, Earth and Mars had come marginally closer together than they had since the Stone Age. Amazingly, Earth and Mars will swing even closer together 284 years later, during the opposition of August 29, 2287.

Mars will beam a good three times more brilliantly in July 2018 than it does in April 2014. Even so, Mars now shines on a par with Sirius, the brightest star of the nighttime sky.

Bottom line: Watch as the bright moon pairs up with beautiful and brilliant Mars on the nights of April 13-14 and 14-15. Mars will be precisely closest to Earth for this two-year period on April 14. And Mars will be near the moon as the moon undergoes a total lunar eclipse on the night of April 14-15. These are awesome nights to watch the sky!

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