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Mars is the only planet with a clearly visible surface and, as such, has been studied by astronomers for hundreds of years.
The next two months offer the best opportunity for skywatchers to study Mars for the next two years. Because of their orbits, Mars and Earth have close encounters only once every 26 months. The next encounter is coming up this week. On March 3, Mars will be in opposition to the Earth. This is essentially a geometric event: Mars will appear exactly opposite the sun in Earth’s sky, 180 degrees away from it. It’s reasonable to think that Mars will also be closest to Earth on this date, but the planet has a trick up its sleeve. While Earth’s orbit is almost a perfect circle, Mars’ orbit is an ellipse with enough of a bulge that the planet actually comes closest to Earth two days later, on March 5. On that date, Mars will be about 62.6 million miles (100.7 million kilometers) away from Earth, which will be almost twice as far away as it was on the Red Planet’s last favorable opposition, on August 30, 2003. This year, Mars will come into opposition with the constellation Leo as a backdrop. Even though this is an unfavorable opposition because of how far away Mars will be, the planet will still be bright enough to outshine all the stars in this part of the sky. Mars will be impossible to miss, even in the brightest city skies. Other than its brightness, Mars should appear a pale red color to the naked eye. It will shine with a steady light, quite different from the twinkling of the nearby bright star Regulus. Because Mars is in opposition to the sun, it will rise in the east at about the same time as the sun sets in the west on Saturday.