Every few years, stargazers are in for a celestial treat as Mars, our captivating planetary neighbor, makes a close approach to Earth. This event, known as opposition or a close approach, is a thrilling time for both professional astronomers and amateur sky-watchers alike. This kind of event happens roughly every 26 months, and that anniversary will occur relatively soon.
What Is a Close Approach?
Although a term usually used to describe near-Earth objects (NEOs) orbiting closer to our planet, the idea of a close approach can still apply to planetary movements as well. A dizzying group of mathematical concepts, including things like the n-body problem, apply here. Basically, the involved science attempts to study and explain the motion and gravity of celestial bodies. Sometimes, there are threats like objects colliding involved, but for planets like Mars, this is not a concern. The relative stability of our Solar System keeps things like this in check!
During close approaches, Mars and Earth are on the same side of the Sun, bringing the two planets closer together than at any other point in their respective orbits. This alignment makes Mars appear brighter and larger in our night sky, offering an unparalleled opportunity for observation and study.
This event is not just a spectacle, but also a significant opportunity for scientific exploration. Space agencies may time their Mars missions to coincide with these close approaches. If this were done for Mars on its next opposition, they could take advantage of the shorter journey to send spacecraft to the Red Planet. Recently, NASA and SpaceX have held high interest in learning more about this mysterious neighbor of ours. The prospect of gaining more insight into Mars’ past and possible future certainly fuels the organizations’ desire.
The closest to Earth Mars has ever been recorded was on August 27, 2003. The distance was a bit more than 34.5 million miles away – considering other approaches have been around 39 million miles away (2020), that’s pretty close!
When Is the Close Approach for Mars This Year?
Unfortunately, through the year of 2023, Mars will be on a course known as retrograde motion. That means the planet is receding on its orbit farther away from Earth. The last point that Mars was nearest to Earth was December 1, 2022, and since then, it has been slowly moving away.
Not to fear, though, as since these orbital ebbs and flows are recurring, it’s possible to predict the next time it will begin approaching Earth once more. This is prograde motion, the opposite of retrograde motion.
NASA indicates the upcoming close approach for the Red Planet to fall on January 12, 2025. Make sure to mark your calendars! Although this might be a bit of a wait, this opportunity is still in the near future, all things considered.
What Does Mars Symbolize?
Due to its distinct reddish color, Mars has been seen as many different things over the ages. The ancient Romans held the concept of Mars as a god of war and agriculture. He was highly esteemed as a protector, a bringer of peace, and a father figure. Did you know that the month of March was named after Mars, and aligned with ancient military and farming campaigns in his honor? The word martial, as in warlike, is also inspired by his name.
Although the ancient Greek god of Ares drew comparisons to this popular Roman deity, Ares was widely seen as an unlikable, destructive force. One of the only true resemblances was that both gods were champions of war. To the Greeks, planet Mars was planet Ares, but it’s obvious which name stuck, and why!
Handed down from ancient civilizations, our solar system has symbols for each planet, each with interesting an background. Mars’ symbol is thought to represent a shield and spear, fitting of the eponymous war god. This symbol is also regarded as the symbol for masculinity, and fittingly so, seeing its correlation.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © WR Studios/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.