Look low in the southeast in mid to late evening and you’ll see a bright red ‘star, which is the planet Mars. Mars, in turn, is closely followed by a semi-bright yellow ‘star’ – Saturn. Joining the duo is the bright red star, Antares, which forms the bottom of a triangle with the two planets.
Mars takes about two years to orbit the Sun. (Compared to Jupiter the next planet which takes 12yrs and Saturn which takes 30yrs, ect.) This means that once the Earth passes Mars it takes much longer for Earth to catch back up to Mars. The other outer planets are in the evening sky at roughly the same time each year, shifting no more than a month on the calendar from year to year. For example, Jupiter has been in the evening sky this spring, it’ll be in the evening sky next spring, shifting only about one month eastward. Mars on the other hand takes about two years from one opposition to the next. Thus the last time Mars was in prime evening sky viewing was 2014.
Mars orbit around the Sun is also much more oval than ours. The difference can be almost 30 million miles between a close appearance and a far appearance. In 2003 Mars was at its close point to the Sun when it reached opposition with Earth. Two years later Mars was a little further from the Sun when it was at opposition with Earth. Progressive oppositions grew farther apart until 2012. In 2012 Mars was at its farthest when it reached opposition with Earth. In 2014 they began moving closer. 2016 is a closer opposition still and 2018 we’ll be back to the close point. This means that this year Mars will be at its brightest (and largest through a telescope) in about 10 years. For the 2016 opposition Mars will be about 16 million miles closer than it was in 2012. In 2018 Mars will be over 27 million miles closer than in 2012.
Mars reaches opposition (the day its opposite the Sun) on May 22nd. Mars will reach its closest point to Earth (and thus be at its brightest) on May 30th. Of note opposition and closest approach can occur almost simultaneously or be separated by up to a maximum of 8.5 days. Thus this year we see about the maximum separation between those two dates.
Saturn will reach opposition and its closest to Earth for the year in early June. While not as impressive to the naked eye as Mars, a quick look through a telescope shows Saturn in all of its beauty. The rings of Saturn are tilted and they change over Saturn’s 30 year orbit. In certain year’s they are almost edge-on and hidden. This year they are near their maximum open and will reveal themselves in any small telescope. They also help to make Saturn appear brighter in the night sky.
Antares is a red supergiant star. It is the brightest star in the constellation of Scorpio. Antares is even more interesting with Mars nearby as this star gets its name from Mars. Mars was called Ares by the Greeks. They called this star Anti-Ares or Antares the “Rival of Mars” because it has a similar color to Mars and similar brightest to Mars when Mars is on the far side of the solar system.
Head outside in late evenings to see Mars at its finest in 10 years, followed by Saturn and a star (Antares) that got its name from Mars. As a bonus, if your are away from the light pollution of the big city the center of our Galaxy will be rising in the SE shortly thereafter.