If you follow the night sky, you know that Mars – the world next-outward from Earth in orbit around the sun – has been spectacularly bright these past two months.
Earth flew between the sun and Mars on July 27; Mars was closest to us on the night of July 30-31. We go between the sun and Mars about every two years, bringing Mars to what astronomers call opposition, where Mars appears opposite the sun in our sky. So opposition is not an usual event for Mars. But the 2018 martian opposition was the peak of a 15-year cycle of the red planet, whereby the planet was closer and brighter than since 2003.
These recent months of 2018 were, it seems, a time of lucky sky events. On the night of Mars’ opposition, July 27, we also had the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century, with Mars nearby.
I’m not normally one for superlatives, but wow! It was supremely lucky to see Mars at its best, so near the moon in total eclipse. But that’s not all.
Throughout these past months, we’ve seen not one but four bright planets arcing across our evening sky. From west to east, they are Venus (brightest), Jupiter (usually second-brightest but bested by Mars in July and August, 2018), Saturn (visible against the star-rich sky background in the direction toward our Milky Way galaxy’s center) and, of course, Mars at its best.
The view has been amazing, in short. I hope you’ve seen and enjoyed it!
You can still see all four of these planets, by the way, in September, 2018: here’s how.
What will happen with Mars now? The answer is always the same for Mars, in the months following its opposition. Earth rushes ahead in our smaller, faster orbit around the sun, leaving Mars behind. The distance between our two worlds becomes larger, and larger. Mars grows dim. As it does so, whenever Earth is speeding ahead in orbit, Mars shifts westward across our sky, appearing a bit farther west with each new nightfall. Mars never becomes invisible to the eye (unless it’s behind the sun). But it can be very, very dim for months on end. That time is coming for Mars. By the year’s end, you might not notice it.
The EarthSky community, as always, has supplied us with wonderful images of these events; we’re grateful to all who submitted photos.
Bottom line: A last few images of a very bright Mars, from the EarthSky Community. We won’t see Mars this bright again for another 15 years!
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.