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Mars and Earth move close for a stargazer’s treat this month in the night sky

Charlotte Edwards and Donna Coutts, October 6, 2020 6:45PM The Sun

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Mars shines brightly in the sky over Port Canaveral in Florida, US, on July 30, 2018, the last close approach to Earth. Picture: NASA media_cameraMars shines brightly in the sky over Port Canaveral in Florida, US, on July 30, 2018, the last close approach to Earth. Picture: NASA


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Mars is the closest it will be to Earth for the next 15 years.

Our nearest planetary* neighbour is 62.1 million kilometres away from us and you should be able to spot it without a telescope.

This may still seem like a large distance but it will make Mars easy for stargazers (and planet spotters) to see throughout October.

The planet is at its absolute closest to Earth on October 7 in Australia.

On a clear night over the next couple of weeks, you should be able to see it rise in the early evening in the east (opposite to the Sun) to the right of the Moon and towards the Pisces constellation*, rising highest in the sky around midnight (or just after) and setting in the early morning in the west.

JUNE 19, 2001 : Image of planet Mars in night sky 19/06/01. Pic Melissa Hulbert. Astronomy / Planet media_cameraMars in the night sky on June 19, 2001. Picture: Melissa Hulbert

Mars occasionally comes closer to Earth because our planet and Mars have orbits that aren’t a true circle shape.

This means that sometimes they come closer to each other as each planet orbits the Sun.

Scientists believe the closest Mars can get to Earth is 54.6 million kilometres, though the closest point has never actually been recorded.

At its farthest away, Mars reaches a distance of 401 million kilometres.

After the Earth-Mars close approach this week, our next close encounter with Mars won’t be until 2035.

NASA explains: “Close Approach is when Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the Sun. Close is a relative term.

“If Earth and Mars had perfectly circular orbits, their minimum distance would always be the same. However, they have elliptical (egg-shaped) paths.”

The space agency added: “The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted with respect to each other.

“All of these factors mean that not all close encounters are equal. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years! It won’t be that close again until the year 2287.

“When Mars and Earth are close to each other, Mars appears very bright in our sky. It also makes it easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye*. The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional* viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years.”

Graphic image of planet Mars taken by Hubble Space Telescope at 7.51pm and released soon after 27/08/2003, is as at point in night sky closest to earth than at anytime in past 60,000 years. media_cameraMars, taken by Hubble Space Telescope on August 27, 2003 as it was closest to Earth than at anytime in past 60,000 years. Picture: NASA

Next week, Earth will swing between Mars and the Sun. This event, called Mars’ opposition, is on October 13, when it will be directly on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, according to NASA.

If you’re having trouble finding Mars, consider downloading a sky scanning app on a smartphone to help you.

The website allows you to click on a map to indicate where you are and then provides you with the time and position of planets in the sky for your location.

This composite image, from NASA Galileo and Mars Global Survey orbiters, of Earth and Mars was created to allow viewers to gain a better understanding of the relative sizes of the two planets. Picture: NASA/JPL media_cameraThis composite image, from NASA Galileo and Mars Global Survey orbiters, of Earth and Mars was created to show the relative sizes of the two planets. Picture: NASA/JPL

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun.

It is named after the Roman god of war.

The landmass of Mars is very similar to Earth but due to the difference in gravity you could jump three times higher there than you can here.

Mars is mountainous and hosts the tallest mountain known in the Solar System called Olympus Mons, three times higher than Mount Everest.

Mars is considered to be the second most habitable* planet after Earth.

It takes the planet 687 Earth days to orbit the Sun.

The US, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched missions to Mars in July 2020, timed to make the interplanetary* journey when the travel distance is shortest and they’re in alignment* on the same side of the Sun.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars in February 2021. The UAE’s Hope probe and China’s Tianwen-1 are also on their way.

So far, there have been 39 missions to Mars but only 16 of these have been successful.

This is an edited version of a story first published on The Sun and republished with permission.


  • planetary: to do with planets
  • constellation: group of stars that appear to form a pattern or picture
  • naked eye: human eye, without equipment to help vision such as a telescope, microscope, binoculars
  • exceptional: unusual, not normal
  • habitable: able to be lived on
  • interplanetary: between planets
  • alignment: how two things are lined up with one another


China’s Mars mission blasts off

NASA’s Perseverance joins race to Mars

Mars InSight lander hits itself with shovel

Mars rover sends selfie back to Earth


  1. How close are Mars and Earth in October?
  2. Describe Earth’s gravity compared to Mars’.
  3. What shape are the orbits of Earth and Mars around the Sun?
  4. What is the tallest mountain in the Solar System called? Where is it?
  5. Which three countries recently launched missions to Mars?


1. Mars Maths

After reading the Kids News story on Earth’s close encounter with Mars, answer the following maths problems getting the figures from the article (check your answers when you’ve had a go at all of them). You can use a calculator as most of them are very large numbers.

  1. What is the difference between the farthest distance from Earth to Mars to what it is next week?
  2. What is the difference between how far Mars will be from Earth this week to the closest distance scientists believe Earth can get to Mars?
  3. If you can jump 40cm on Earth, how high could you jump on Mars?
  4. Mount Everest is 8848m high, how high is Olympus Mons?
  5. How many missions to Mars have failed?

Answers are at the bottom of the story under comments. Don’t look until you have completed the activity!

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Mathematics, Science

2. Extension
Draw a diagram to explain to a younger student how Earth and Mars come closer together at different distances each time.

Write down a list of questions you’d like to find out about Mars and research in your own time.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

Proper Noun Police
A proper noun is a noun that names a particular person, place or thing. It always has a capital letter.

How many proper nouns can you find within this article? Find them all and sort them into the category of name, place, time (date/month).

Can you find any proper nouns included in your writing?

What are they?

Can you sort them into their categories?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What is the best thing you’ve seen in the night sky?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Answers to activity 1:

401,000,000 – 62,100,000 = 338,900,000km

62,100,000 – 54,600,000 = 7,500,000km

3 times higher, 40 x 3 = 120cm or 1.2m

8848 x 3 = 26,544m

39-16 = 23

Extra Reading in space