ORLANDO, Fla. - If you've looked outside anytime after sunset recently, you've probably thought Mars looks a bit bigger than you remember it. That's because it is -- well, sort of.
The size of the red planet hasn't actually changed, but where it is in its orbit has lessened the distance between it and Earth, making it appear bigger to us Earthlings as it gets closer.
While Mars has seemed closer for a while now, it will seem biggest and brightest through the end of the July, since Mars Close Approach is July 31. Mars Close Approach is exactly what it seems: the point in Mars' orbit around the sun when it comes closest to Earth.
According to NASA, Mars will be 35.8 million miles from Earth during its 2018 close approach.
Mars Close Approach takes place about every 26 months, but since Earth and Mars don't have perfectly circular orbits, the shortest distance between the planets isn't always the same for each close approach. Instead, they have elliptical, or egg-shaped, paths with orbits that change as a result of gravitational tugging.
The minimum distance between the planets is about 33.9 million miles, according to NASA. But they don't get that close together often. Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years back in 2003, when its center was 34,646,418 miles from Earth's. The planets aren't expected to be that close again until 2287, according to NASA.
So what's the big deal about the close approach?
Well, since it means a shorter distance between Mars and Earth, you tend to see more missions to Mars take place in years that a close approach happens in because it means a shorter trip from Earth to the red planet. That is if budgets allow the missions, of course.
It's also a great time for people see the planet from here on Earth, and many Orlando-area planetariums are making it easy for stargazers to get a good look this year.
The following events are taking place across Central Florida to celebrate the planet's proximity:
What: Mars Opposition Viewing Event
Where: Orlando Science Center -- 777 E. Princeton St., Orlando, Florida 32803
When: Friday night (Saturday) 12 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Admission info: Stop by the Science Center or visit the event's official Facebook page
What: Mars Opposition Viewing
Where: Emil Buehler Planetarium at Seminole State College -- 100 Weldon Blvd., Sanford, Florida 32773
When: Friday at 9 p.m., Saturday at 9 p.m., Aug. 3 at 9 p.m., Aug. 4 at 9 p.m.
Admission info: Stop by planetarium or visit the event's official Facebook page
Derek Demeter, the astronomy director at Seminole State College's planetarium, said the sight will be particularly spectacular through telescopes Friday because Mars will also be close to the moon around the time of the event.
Demeter said the events are free and open to the public. Seminole State College officials will notify people hoping to attend via Facebook if the event has to be canceled due to weather. As of Tuesday, Demeter said they're expecting partly cloudy skies Friday and Saturday, but he said the clouds tend to clear up later into the night.
"It's an extremely bright, reddish star," Demeter said. "Most times, it looks like a small, red speck through a scope, but now it's a much better view because it's basically twice as close."
Guests will also have the chance to see Jupiter, Saturn and the moon through telescopes at the planetarium.
Of course, you can always step outside and check out the red planet with your naked eye. Demeter said the best time to view the planet is from 10:30 p.m. through midnight.
If you miss the close approach altogether, don't worry. Mars will still be more visible than normal for a while, but will become fainter as it travels farther from Earth during the planets' orbits around the sun.
Mars' next close approach is Oct. 6, 2020.
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