On the evening of Monday, 30 May, Mars is closer to Earth than at any time since 30 October 2005. This begs the question: just how close can Mars get? Ade Ashford gives you an overview of close Martian oppositions past, present and future. Also, Friday, 3 June sees the opposition of Saturn, the other planet visible low in the south around midnight.
On the morning of Sunday, 22 May planet Mars reached opposition in the constellation of Scorpius and is closest to the Earth on 30 May — its best showing in a decade for Southern Hemisphere observers. As seen from the UK the Red Planet will be low in the south at 1am BST, but on nights of good seeing surface detail will be visible in amateur telescopes. Use our interactive Mars Mapper to identify its features.
With just a month to go until the 2016 opposition of Mars, the Red Planet is now visible very low in the southeast before midnight for observers in the heart of the UK. Mars and ringed planet Saturn are presently separated by just over 7 degrees — a low power, wide-angle binocular field of view. The waning gibbous Moon passes by on the mornings of 25—26 April.
When 252P/LINEAR passed just 14 lunar distances from Earth on 21 March, the comet was galloping across the far southern sky at a rate of almost ten degrees per day. Now rapidly heading north, 252P finally appears in the predawn UK sky. While moonlight will interfere with current observations, the comet is much brighter than predicted.
At 6am GMT on the mornings of 3 and 4 February, around the onset of astronomical twilight for the centre of the British Isles, the old waning crescent Moon brushes by ringed planet Saturn low to the south-southeast horizon. As a bonus for telescope users, the Moon occults globular cluster M9 shortly after 6am GMT on 4 February too.
As avid skywatchers will already know, all of the bright naked-eye planets are currently visible in the pre-dawn sky — the first time in eleven years that such an alignment has occurred. At 6am GMT on Monday, 1 February, the last quarter Moon in the constellation Libra lies just 2½ degrees from magnitude +0.8 planet Mars low in the south for UK observers.
On the morning of Saturday, 9 January — just two days after their photogenic conjunction with an old crescent Moon — planets Venus and Saturn reach the denouement of their pre-dawn show with a spectacular close conjunction. To observe this spectacle you need an unobstructed view low to the southeast around 7am GMT (central British Isles).
On the morning of Thursday, 7 January, observers in the UK with a clear sky and an unobstructed view low to the southeast at 7am GMT (central British Isles) can see a close conjunction between the old crescent Moon, Venus and Saturn — all three encompassed by the field of view of a typical binocular.
As dusk fades to dark on Saturday, 22 August, observers in the British Isles and Western Europe with clear skies can see the first quarter Moon close above planet Saturn low to the southwest. But for those skywatchers with binoculars and small telescopes, an additional treat is in store as the Moon passes in front of (occults) a naked-eye star.