Those who enjoy sky gazing are most likely aware that Mars will soon come the closest to Earth that it’s been in 15 years.
But that’s not all – as of June 28 the planet will go into ‘retrograde’ and appear to zig zag across our sky. Here’s what that means.
Throughout the year, the Red Planet has been getting brighter and brighter in the night sky as Earth passes between Mars and the Sun, and by July 31 it will be just 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) away – the closest it’s been to us since August 2003.
Already we can see it appear in the night sky just before midnight, glowing a yellow-orange, almost as bright as Jupiter, explains Space.com columnist Joe Rao.
In fact, Mars is 25 times brighter in our sky now than it was on January 1, when the planet was 292 million km (181 million miles) from Earth.
Back on New Year’s Day, the planet was also shining in the zodiacal constellation of Libra and has been steadily moving east across the sky, into the constellation Capricornus.
In recent weeks the progression has appeared to slow down and on June 28 that course will ‘reverse’ and Mars will move across the background stars in a westward direction.
On August 28 the planet will ‘pause’ again before moving back towards the east, explains Rao.
How does that happen?
Well, it’s not actually as weird or mystical as it sounds. And despite what you might have read, it isn’t going to ruin your life.
All planets in our Solar System exhibit this apparent backwards motion at time – the most famous (or infamous, depending on who you’re talking to) is the Mercury retrograde.
Of course, the planets don’t actually change their orbital direction or slow down – all of this is an illusion as we zoom past in our own journey around the Sun.
“It’s the same effect obtained when you pass another car on the highway: Both cars are going in the same direction, but one is moving more slowly. As they pass, the slower car will appear to be moving backward in relation to the faster one.
Copernicus applied the same effect to the planets out in space. In the upcoming situation, both Earth and Mars are moving in the same direction around the sun, but the slower one — Mars — appears to move backward compared to the faster one, Earth.”
So while it’s going to be fun to watch, Mars isn’t actually going to be changing its course at all.
The planets in our Solar System don’t slow down or travel backwards – from our unique reference point it just sometimes seems as if they do.
And even when they get as close as Mars will in the coming weeks, they don’t actually have any influence on our day to day lives at all.
As Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago told Business Insider last year: “Other planets in the solar system have no effect on our planet. Everything is just too far away.”
“You could hold out a book in your hand and the gravitational effect of that book on you is going to be greater than Mercury’s,” she added.
So let’s enjoy Mars shining brightly in our night sky while we can see it. Because the progress of the planets around our Sun isn’t going to slow down for anyone.