Mars reaching a milestone this week

Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech

If you've seen a very bright object in the night sky recently and don't know what it is it might be Mars. The Red Planet reaches a milestone later this week.

At 1:07 a.m. Friday morning the planet will be at something known as opposition. Simply put, that's when it's directly opposite the sun in the sky when viewed from Earth.

This happens roughly every 26 months but some oppositions are better than others. Both Earth and Mars have elliptical, or slightly egg-shaped orbits.

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As a result, there are times when they're closer to and farther away from the sun. When a planet is closest to the sun it's at something known as perihelion.

What makes this opposition special is the fact that it's occurring close to Mars' perihelion. Because Mars is closer to the sun it's closer to us as well which means it's bigger and brighter than normal.

Mars will be about 35.8 million miles away meaning it's making its closest pass in nearly 15 years. Mars is so close that it's actually outshining Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

We have to wait until 2035 before we see the planet as close to us as it is now.

You can find Mars in the southeastern sky after sunset over the next few evenings but Thursday night/Friday morning, the night of the opposition will have an extra special treat: the nearly full moon will join Mars nearby just above and right of the planet.

Mars will be easy to spot because of the moon, because it's so bright and because it has a reddish hue.