Planet Mars is at its 'biggest and brightest'

In all its glory: Mars by Damian Peach on September 30th
Go out and look up!
Mars is currently the largest and brightest as the red planet aligns with Earth on the same side of the sun.
Every 26 months, the two of them pick up this arrangement and move closely together before they then diverge again on their separate orbits around our star.
Tuesday evening is the real moment of what astronomers call "opposition".
All three bodies will be in a straight line at 23:20 GMT (00:20 BST).
"But you don't have to wait until late at night. Even now, at nine or ten o'clock in the evening, you'll see it easily in the southeast," says astrophotographer Damian Peach. "You can't miss it, it's the brightest star-shaped object in this part of the sky," he told BBC News.
Although this coming week sees the moment of opposition, it was Tuesday of last week that Mars and Earth actually came closest in this 26 month cycle.
A distance of 62,069,570 km or 38,568,243 miles. That is now the narrowest gap until 2035.
Starting shot for the NASA mission to discover life on Mars
China's Mars rover shoots away from Earth
The United Arab Emirates launch the first historic mission to Mars
At the last opposition in 2018, Earth and Mars were only 58 million km apart. What makes this occasion a little more special for astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere is the height of the red planet in the sky. It's higher and that means telescopes don't have to look through Earth's turbulent atmosphere as much, which distorts the images.
Seasoned practitioners like Damian use a technique called "lucky imaging" to get the perfect shot. You take multiple pictures and then use software to stitch the sharpest view together.
Damian's picture at the top of this page clearly shows the "Mars dichotomy" - the sharp contrast between the smooth lowland plains of the northern hemisphere and the rougher terrain of the southern hemisphere. The carbon dioxide ice cap of Mars at the South Pole can also be seen.
The picture was taken with a 14-inch Celestron telescope.
"It's a pretty serious piece of gear. You don't get it on a whim," says Damian. "But even a telescope half the size can easily show all the important features of Mars. And if you have good binoculars, you can safely see that it is actually a planet and not a star."
Buried water lakes discovered on Mars
Is life floating in the clouds of Venus?
Graphic: The UAE's Hope probe will investigate the Martian atmosphere from next year
It's about opposition that space probes are being fired from Earth to Mars. Obviously, the distance to be traveled is shorter and the time and energy required for the trip are lower.
There are currently three missions underway, all of which were launched in July: The United Arab Emirates' Hope Orbiter; China's Tianwen Orbiter and Rover; and the Americans' persistence rover.
Europe and Russia had hoped to deliver their ExoMars "Rosalind Franklin" rover as well, but they missed the launch window and will have to wait until the end of 2022. This is the penalty you will pay if the planets only align every 26 months.
Hope, Tianwen and Perseverance are all on their way to arriving on Mars in February.
Infographic
In 2003, Mars came closest to Earth in nearly 60,000 years - a distance of only 56 million km.
The distance between the two opponents can be over 100 million km, as happened in 2012.
The variation is a result of the elliptical shape of the orbits of Mars and Earth.
Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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