Anyone in Western Europe blessed with clear skies at dusk on Thursday, 18 October should cast their gaze towards the 9-day-old Moon that happens to appear close to Mars in the southern sky. Their proximity is merely a line-of-sight effect since the Moon is just 401,600 kilometres distant, whereas the Red Planet lies almost 105 million kilometres from Earth this night, hence Mars is 260 times farther away.
Mars was closest to Earth just three-and-a-half months ago when its bright ochre disc spanned an impressive 24.3 arcseconds. Now, the Red Planet’s disc measures 13.4 arcseconds – little more than half its opposition best. However, many keen Mars observers will recall the global dust storm that obliterated much of the keenly anticipated surface detail from view. Thankfully, the martian atmosphere is much clearer now, so prominent features should be easier to detect despite the planet’s shrinking apparent size.For skywatchers in the British Isles, darkness falls around 8pm BST on 18 October 2018 and Mars is best placed for observation in the southern sky about half an hour later. Even so, the Red Planet barely attains an altitude of 17 degrees – slightly less than the span of an outstretched hand at arm’s length – as seen from the heart of the UK.
The martian longitude facing Earth at 8:30pm BST this night is 309 degrees, hence prominent features such as the dark V-shaped Syrtis Major in the planet’s northern hemisphere, the bright Hellas basin in the south (see our interactive Mars Mapper web app for annotated maps of the planet) and the shrinking martian south polar cap will be on show for those with good seeing. Note, too, that Mars now has an appreciable phase; the planet’s disc is 87 percent illuminated on the night in question.