Mars has been climbing higher and growing brighter in our night skies, and if you look up tonight, you'll see the Red Planet at its brightest until the early 2030s.
On the night of December 7-8, as the Full Cold Moon lights up the sky, the planet Mars will be nearby, shining brightly as it lines up perfectly with the Sun and Earth in an event known as Opposition.
This diagram shows the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Mars for Mars Opposition 2022. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Scott Sutherland
For several of the planets we see in the sky, Opposition is also when they are closest to Earth.
However, due to Mars' elliptical path around the Sun, its closest approach to Earth occurs before Opposition this year, on the night of November 30-December 1.
This diagram shows the positions of Earth and Mars during Mars' closest approach on the night of Nov 30-Dec 1, 2022. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Scott Sutherland
On this night, Mars is roughly 81.4 million kilometres from Earth.
That's not the closest distance to Earth that Mars can reach. From NASA's records, the two planets were only 55.7 million km apart on August 27, 2003 — the closest approach in 60,000 years!
Mars at its brightest for the next decade
However, get a good look tonight because Mars won't be this bright again for over a decade!
According to the 2022 Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Observer's Handbook, over the next five years, Mars is swinging out towards its farthest distance from the Sun (aphelion). Thus, the planet will appear smaller and dimmer, even as we approach Opposition in the coming years.
This trend will reverse after 2027. After that, we'll see it get brighter at each close approach until it finally matches and exceeds what we're seeing now at Opposition in 2033.
The Moon blocks Mars
We'll have to wait a week to see this, but on the night of December 7-8, Canadian and U.S. skywatchers can catch a very cool event known as Occultation, when the Moon passes directly in front of Mars.
Since the exact path Mars takes as it slips behind the Moon differs based on where you watch from — your latitude and longitude — when to watch for this event, and how long it lasts, both depend on your location.
In the RASC handbook, David Dunham and David Herald, from the International Occultation Timing Association, give the following duration and timing for different cities across Canada:
Halifax: 10 minutes, from 12:19 a.m. to 12:29 a.m. AST, Dec 8
Montreal: 48 minutes, from 10:41 p.m to 11:29 p.m. EST, Dec 7
Toronto: 48 minutes, from 10:29 p.m to 11:17 p.m. EST, Dec 7
Winnipeg: 70 minutes, from 9:05 p.m to 10:15 p.m. CST, Dec 7
Edmonton: 62 minutes, from 8:04 p.m. to 9:06 p.m. MST, Dec 7
Vancouver: 57 minutes, from 6:55 p.m. to 7:52 p.m. PST, Dec 7
The Mars Fleet
As you're looking up at Mars, give a little wave to the fleet of rovers, landers, and orbiters that humans have exploring there right now!
Currently, NASA has three spacecraft orbiting Mars — Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission. In addition, the European Space Agency (ESA) has one of its own, Mars Express.
The current Mars orbiter fleet. Mars' innermost moon, Phobos, is also shown here, as is the orbit of Deimos (background). The path of India's Mars Orbiter Mission also cuts through the field of view. However, contact was lost with this spacecraft in April 2022. Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
On the surface, there are several robots currently operating.
NASA's Curiosity rover has been exploring Gale Crater since 2012. It is still going strong as it climbs and investigates the layered sediments of Mount Sharp. Its discoveries have built upon previous missions to show that Mars was once a warmer, more habitable place in its distant past.
In this selfie, taken in March 2021, the Curiosity rover stands near Mont Mercou, a 6-metre tall rock outcrop on Mount Sharp. The rover has drilled into the light-coloured rock at the base of the outcrop at the Nontron drilling site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The InSight lander touched down in November of 2018 to explore the planet's interior structure using a sensitive seismometer to record marsquakes. Although it has performed its job well, despite hiccups thrown at it by the bizarre nature of the Martian surface, InSight's mission is about to come to an end.
Due to dust accumulating on its solar panels, InSight's power is at critical levels. As a result, the mission team has already shut down all of its science instruments except the seismometer. The lander's cameras only send back images roughly once a week (the latest were taken on November 26).
A thick layer of dust covers InSight and its solar panels in this selfie taken in early 2022. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It's now just a matter of time before NASA loses contact with the lander and the mission officially ends.
In Jezero Crater, the Perseverance rover and its tiny helicopter companion, Ingenuity, are going strong.
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter on April 6, 2021, the 46th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Even Ingenuity, which was only expected to last a few months, is still flying over a year and a half after its first flight in April 2021.
The latest flight, number 34, was a short 18-second hover on November 23, which allowed the team to test out new software upgrades meant to improve Ingenuity's navigation over rough terrain.
Meanwhile, Perseverance has reached the river delta at the western edge of Jezero Crater. There, it has been investigating intriguing deposits, searching for signs of biological life that is thought to have existed on Mars in its past.
Finally, to the northeast of Perseverance and north of Curiosity and InSight, China's Zhurong rover and Tianwen-1 lander are still exploring Utopia Planitia.
Also, please spare a moment for Opportunity whom we lost in 2019, due to an intense global dust storm.
This computer simulation shows the Opportunity rover working on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU
This veteran rover had spent 15 years roaming Meridiani Planum and made one of the most profound discoveries: Mars once had surface water suitable to support life as we know it.
The new documentary Good Night Oppy is a fantastic journey with Opportunity and her sister rover, Spirit, through their long exploration of Mars. It also details the human side of the mission, talking with the people who cared for and guided these robots through their trials and challenges throughout the years.