Ever so often, Earth, along its celestial course, travels between Mars and the Sun, or any planet, to say the least. It just so happens that on this date, March 3, 2012, Mars will be such a planet of which Earth is directly between it and the Sun, hence making Mars at opposition. What is opposition, exactly? From just glancing at the word, we can assume (based on our knowledge of Greek and Latin word roots) that "opposition" may mean "the opposite" or perhaps "against or opposing"? These two possible meanings do work together to form a rather formal definition of such a time for a planet in its orbit around the sun, relative to earth. Dictionary.com defines "opposition" to mean (in an astronomical sense) "the situation of two heavenly bodies when their longitudes or right ascensions differ by 180°." In other words, Earth is passing between Mars and the Sun: on March 3, 2012.
|Simulated Opposition for March 3, 2012|
Occurring rather not-that-often, Mars reaches opposition every 780 days, or 2 years and 50 days, on the average; it will be the brightest again in April of 2014, so try to experience Mars while you can! Currently, although depending on weather conditions and urban locations, Mars is seen on a clear, dark night at approximately -1.2 magnitude, rather bright when compared to other objects, such as stars. [Venus and Jupiter are no match to Mars, though! They are currently in conjunction around -4 mag for Venus and -2 for Jupiter]. Mars can be found in Leo, as it has moved from Virgo earlier in 2012.
Jeffery D. Beish writes "opposition will occur at 20:04 UT on March 03, 2012 (78.1° Ls), with an apparent planetary disk diameter of 13.9 arcsec. Mars will remain visible for a year after opposition and then become lost in the glare of the Sun again (April 01, 2013) as it approaches the next conjunction (April 17, 2013)." Mars will be closest to earth on March 5, however. EarthSky speculates "Mars is shining brightly now for good reason. ... Presently, Mars lodges a little over 100 million kilometers (62 million miles) away. Next year, however, when Mars lies on the far side of the sun from Earth, Mars will be some 3.6 times farther away and not even one-ninth as bright.
MARCH 14 2012: JUPITER AND VENUS CONJUNCTION
...supposed brightest in years!...