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This planet will be extra bright tonight

Mars, seen here in a magnified NASA image, will pass the closest to Earth since 2003 on Friday, appearing especially bright in the night sky. The planet’s peak brightness will linger for about a week.
Mars, seen here in a magnified NASA image, will pass the closest to Earth since 2003 on Friday, appearing especially bright in the night sky. The planet’s peak brightness will linger for about a week. Space Science Institute via AP

Look into the night sky Friday and you might notice a reddish dot that seems unusually bright. That would be Mars making its (relatively) closest pass by Earth in 15 years.

It’s called Mars opposition, and the planet’s peak brightness will linger for about a week. Here is what’s going on up there.

Both Mars and Earth, of course, orbit the sun. During opposition, as NASA explains it, Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth. This happens about every 26 months.

Every 15 to 17 years — this year — opposition happens to occur when Mars is closest to the sun in its elliptical orbit. That also places it closest to Earth. Because of gravitational influences and the tilt of the planets’ orbits, Mars sometimes comes even closer than usual to Earth — the 2003 opposition was the closest pass in nearly 60,000 years.

In 2003, Space.com reports, Mars was was 34.6 million miles from Earth, compared to the average distance of about 140 million miles. At its closest point beginning Friday night, the Red Planet will be 35.8 million miles away but will remain at peak brightness through Aug. 3.

In-The-Sky.org offers specific advice for viewers in Charlotte: Mars will rise above the southeastern horizon at 8:38 p.m. Friday and sink into the southwestern horizon at 5:28 a.m. Saturday.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
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