On May 22, the Earth, Mars, and the sun will line up during a cosmic event known as opposition, when the sun and Mars can be seen on the opposite sides of the sky when viewed from Earth. This also marks the Red Planet’s closest approach to Earth than at any time in the last decade.
This would mean that Mars will appear bigger and brighter in the sky. Getting into the spirit of things, NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope released a stunning close-up of the Red Planet, showing famous Martian features as small as 30 kilometres across.
Using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), Hubble took advantage of the alignment on May 12 when Mars was 50 million miles (80.4 kilometres) away from Earth. The photo shows the bright, icy polar caps and clouds overhead a rust-coloured terrain as well as small mountains, canyons, erosion channels and volcanoes.
On the far right of the Red Planet as seen by the large and dim region, is Syrtis Major Planitia. Syrtis Major, an ancient inactive shield volcano, was among the first Martian features to be discovered in the 17th century.
Syrtis Major’s south is the bright oval-shaped crater named Hellas Planitia basin. The 3.5-billion-year-old Hellas Planitia is the largest crater on Mars, measuring about 1,800 kilometres wide and eight kilometres deep.
The stunning final image also shows an orange area at the centre. Scientists dubbed this region the Arabia Terra, a heavily eroded and densely cratered landscape believed to be one of the oldest geographical features on Mars. The south of Arabia Terra is Sinus Sabaeous, which runs east along the equator and Sinus Meridiani, which runs west along the equator. These are long dark regions covered by bedrock caused by ancient lava flows and other volcanic events. Martian clouds can be seen above the planet’s southern polar cap. Since it is late summer in the northern hemisphere, the polar cap here has receded.
The last Martian opposition occurred on November 7, 2005. During this year’s opposition, Mars will not be as close as it can be. We have to wait until 2018 for that.