October 2020 is all about the glory of Mars as the glimmering red planet puts on a show in the night sky. We passed Mars' close approach to Earth on Oct. 6 and now we can look forward to Mars being in opposition Tuesday night.
Mars has a reputation as the "red" planet, but its color in the night sky is a little more on the Halloween side of the spectrum. It appears as a bright orange-red dot to the naked eye, like a little spot of glittering rust.
Mars' distinctive color is one clue you've found it in the dark. Look to the eastern sky to catch it rising at night. This is a great time for viewing the planet, partly because spotting it is so simple. It should be visible for most of the night. As NASA says, "Simply go outside and look up and, depending on your local weather and lighting conditions, you should be able to see Mars."
When Mars and the sun line up with Earth in the middle, the red planet is said to be in opposition. This is a perfect time to track Mars' movement across the sky. It will rise in the east as the sun goes down, move across the sky and then set in the west as the sun comes up.
NASA describes opposition as "effectively a 'full' Mars." Tuesday, Oct. 13 is the time to enjoy opposition. You'll have to wait over two years for it to happen again.
The Virtual Telescope Project, which brings us live feeds of celestial events, will stream a Mars opposition viewing starting at 1 p.m. PT. on Oct. 13. It's a perfect way to enjoy the action without weather worries. For people in the US, it will give you a preview of what to look for after sundown.
The project expects this to be "the best observing conditions since July 2018."
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"The racetrack model of planetary orbits explains why. Earth and Mars are like runners on a track. Earth is on the inside, Mars is on the outside," NASA said in its What's Up blog for October. "Every 26 months, speedy Earth catches up to slower Mars and laps it. Opposition occurs just as Earth takes the lead."
Tuesday, Oct. 6 marked the close approach of Mars to Earth, but this entire month is still a good time to grab a telescope and get a little better look. Give a wave to NASA's Perseverance rover while you're at it. The vehicle is on track to reach the planet in February 2021.