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How to watch Mars make its closest approach to Earth until 2035

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Two full moons aren't the only spectacular celestial events of October. This week, Mars is making its closest approach to Earth until 2035 — and to see it, all skywatchers need to do is look up.

Mars will shine bright all month long, but there are two rare days to watch out for: October 6, when Mars makes its close approach, and October 13, when the red planet is in opposition. 

Close Approach

On Tuesday, October 6, Mars' orbit comes closest to Earth. This year, Mars' close approach puts the planet at about 38.59 million miles from Earth, according to NASA

The minimum distance the two planets can be from one another is about 33.9 million miles. Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years in 2003 — and won't be that close again until 2287. 

Mars is relatively easy to spot in the night sky due to its bright orange-red color, visible even to the naked eye. It is visible for most of the night in the southern sky, reaching its highest point around midnight, and the close approach means that it is brighter than ever.  

This year, it comes closest at about 10 a.m. EDT on October 6, according to EarthSky. However, eager skywatchers can look up all month to see an incredible view of the planet, near the moon.

"Simply go outside and look up and, depending on your local weather and lighting conditions, you should be able to see Mars," NASA said.

If you happen to miss this year's close approach, the next one will be December 8, 2022. However, NASA said it will 15 years before Mars looks this amazing again, due to the planets' slightly tilted elliptical orbits and gravitational tugging. 

"The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years," the space agency said. The next time Mars is closer to Earth than it is right now will be in 2035.  

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope photographed Mars on July 18, near its closest approach to Earth since 2003. NASA

Mars in Opposition

Earth makes two trips around the sun in about the same amount of time that it takes Mars to make one trip. This means that, occasionally, the two planets are on exact opposite sides of the sun — a phenomenon called opposition that occurs about every two years. 

Mars' close approach this year coincides with opposition, an especially rare occurrence. From humans' perspectives on Earth, the red planet is rising in the east just as the sun is setting in the west, with the exact reverse occurring each morning. 

When Mars is in opposition, the red planet and Earth are closest to each other in their orbits. Mars is at its brightest during this time, making it easy to spot in the night sky with the naked eye. 

This year, it is reaching opposition at around 7 p.m. EDT on October 13, according to EarthSky.

With Mars being so close, several nations are currently sending spacecraft to the planet, including NASA's Mars 2020 mission. The Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on the red planet in February 2021.

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