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Opposition of Mars: Red Planet, Earth, Sun To Align on Tuesday

By Michael Mullins   |   Monday, 07 Apr 2014 07:06 AM

Mars, Earth, and the Sun will align on Tuesday as the varied orbits of the Blue Planet and Red Planet line up in an occurrence that occurs once every 778 days, or about 26 months, known as the "opposition of Mars."

The reason the planets align every two or so years behind the sun in orbit is because they are traveling at different speeds due to their distance from the sun and the varied trajectory in which they orbit it.

Whereas the Earth, as well as Venus, orbit the sun in almost a perfect circle, the orbits of both Mars and Mercury are skewed appearing more like an ellipse – elongated at two opposing sides. Also, the Earth is significantly closer to the sun than Mars, resulting in a 365 orbit whereas the Red Planet's orbit is 778 days.

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In addition to the alignment, Mars and the Earth will be closer than they are at any time in their orbit around the sun, having narrowed the space gap to just over 57 million miles apart, with the planets coming closer at a rate of 186 miles per minute, according to NASA.

As a result of the shorter distance, the Red Planet will appear nearly 10 times brighter than a 1st magnitude star from the Earth's surface, with the difference being particularly evident in the east at sunset and overhead at midnight when Mar's shining burnt-orange exterior will most visible, the space agency reported.

As the 19th century astronomer Percival Lowell once wrote, "[Mars] blazes forth against the dark background of space with a splendor that outshines Sirius and rivals the giant Jupiter himself," NASA noted.

In addition to being close to one another, the Earth and Mars will be closer to the sun than they were in the 2012 alignment, due to the nature of their orbit resulting in what is known as a "favorable oppositions of Mars." The closest or "most favorable" alignment will occur in July 2018, according to Space.com.

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