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In this image released on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, the Milky Way, visible in the skies above the Gran Telescopio Canarias at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, Spain.

Antoni Cladera/The Associated Press

Mars is making its closest approach to Earth for 15 years and the next several nights will be prime time for catching a glimpse of the brilliant, ruddy orb.

While the solar system’s fourth planet is one of Earth’s nearest neighbours, its brightness can vary widely depending on where the two planets are in their respective orbits around the sun. Since Earth orbits faster, Mars is at its best about every 27 months, when we overtake and pass it like one car lapping another on a racetrack.

Astronomers refer to this moment as Mars opposition because the planet is located precisely opposite the sun from Earth’s point of view. During opposition, Mars brightens dramatically until it outshines nearly every other celestial object in the sky. Its reddish hue makes it unmistakable.

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Even better, the current opposition, which falls on Oct. 13, is the best that Earthlings will see until 2035. This is due to the elliptical shape of the planet’s orbit, which will render the next several close passes rather less close than this one.

The planet can be seen easily on any clear night this week. It rises in the east at about sunset and climbs high into the southeastern sky by late evening. Above it, the square-shaped fall constellation known as Pegasus serves as a convenient marker, but Mars is currently so bright that it’s hard to miss even under the most light-polluted of city skies.

Normally such occasions would be the time for astronomy clubs and planetariums to set up telescopes for a closer look at the Red Planet. With the pandemic in full swing, large public events are not an option, but York University in Toronto is offering live virtual viewing of Mars through its Allan Carswell observatory Oct. 11 through Oct. 15, from 8 to 10 p.m. ET, weather permitting.

Of course, it is also possible simply to step outside, perhaps with family or social bubble in tow, and spend a few moments gazing up at the light of a nearby world.

A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH MARS

Mars lights up the night sky this month during its closest approach in 15 years. The bright, rust-coloured planet rises at sunset and can be seen in the southeast during the late evening.

WHERE TO LOOK (10 p.m. local time)

Pegasus

MARS

Fomalhaut

HORIZON

SOUTHEAST

EAST

COMING MARS OPPOSITIONS (2020–2025)

Dec. 8,

2022

Jan. 16,

2025

Mars

Earth

Oct. 13,

2020

The Sun

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

STELLARIUM-WEB.ORG

A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH MARS

Mars lights up the night sky this month during its closest approach in 15 years. The bright, rust-coloured planet rises at sunset and can be seen in the southeast during the late evening.

WHERE TO LOOK (10 p.m. local time)

Pegasus

MARS

Fomalhaut

HORIZON

EAST

SOUTHEAST

COMING MARS OPPOSITIONS (2020–2025)

Dec. 8,

2022

Jan. 16,

2025

Mars

Earth

Oct. 13,

2020

The Sun

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STELLARIUM-WEB.ORG

A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH MARS

Mars lights up the night sky this month during its closest approach in 15 years. The bright, rust-coloured planet rises at sunset and can be seen in the southeast during the late evening.

WHERE TO LOOK (10 p.m. local time)

COMING MARS OPPOSITIONS (2020–2025)

Dec. 8,

2022

Jan. 16,

2025

Pegasus

Mars

Earth

Oct. 13,

2020

MARS

The Sun

Fomalhaut

HORIZON

SOUTHEAST

EAST

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STELLARIUM-WEB.ORG

Mars looks red because unlike Venus or Jupiter, which are similarly bright, it has few clouds. It is the planet whose surface we can see directly – a cold, desiccated landscape that at times can look eerily like a desert on Earth, and which spacecraft are now actively investigating for signs of present water and past life.

An approaching opposition is the ideal time to dispatch robotic explorers to Mars, because it shortens the trip and allows for heavier payloads. This past summer, three different missions – from the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates – were launched to take advantage of the favourable orbital geometry. All three are now near the halfway point in their journey.

Isaac Smith, a planetary scientist at York who works with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to search for signs of ice below the Martian surface, said the ever-growing flood of data from the planet has not dimmed its allure.

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Unlike Venus, which has a temperature hot enough to melt lead, Mars is the only world in the solar system whose surface conditions are remotely like Earth’s.

“People will walk on Mars one day. It’s going to happen,” he said. “From a research perspective, that means if I find ice on Mars, I get to play a role in where humans go. And that’s a really important thing, for a lot a people," working on these missions.

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