On May 30, Mars will be at its closest distance to Earth in 11 years, as it comes into opposition with the Sun. The moment will be “especially photogenic,” since the Red Planet will be enlightened by the sun. The NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has already captured a close-up of the planet.

Mars’ opposition started on May 22, when it lined up with the sun and the Earth. The Red Planet is currently located “directly opposite the sun in the sky,” said astronomers at the Hubble Space Telescope project. During opposition time, the planet is closer than usual to Earth.

Mars to reach closest distance to Earth
As Mars reaches its closest distance to Earth in 11 years, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is taking the opportunity to capture extraordinary images of Mars’ surface. Credit: Spacetelescope.org

Researchers take advantage of this phenomenon to see more details about the Martian surface, using space telescopes and ground-based telescopes. During night, Mars appears fully illuminated, giving a great opportunity for observers and space fans.

Astronomers at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are observing Mars with the Hubble Space Telescope. On May 12, they captured “sharp and natural colour images” of the planet. The telescope was able to see details in Mars “as small as 18.6 miles across.”

New photographs unveil Mars’ features such as mountains, canyons and volcanoes

The Hubble is using the Wide Field Camera 3. Photographs expose geological characteristics of Mars, including small mountains, erosion channels, canyons and volcanoes, said astronomers in a press release issued last week.

Syrtis Major Planitia can be observed in new photographs. The dark spot is located at the right side of the planet. It is the place for an inactive shield volcano, whose summit appears surrounded by clouds.

The orange area in the center of the photograph shows the Arabia Terra, “a vast upland region,” said astronomers in a press release issued Thursday. The landscape there is cratered and “heavily eroded.” A theory proposes that it could be one of the oldest formations in Mars.

“South of Arabia Terra, running east to west along the equator, are the long dark features known as Sinus Sabaeous and Sinus Meridiani (to the west). These darker regions are covered by bedrock from ancient lava flows and other volcanic features,” said astronomers at the Hubble project.

Mars will be at 46.7 million miles from Earth in just a few days

Mars’ opposition takes place every 780 days. Last time this phenom occurred was in 2014. Since 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope has observed the Red Planet more than eight times. All photographs can be downloaded at the Hubble’s archives online.

Mars’ closest oppositional approach to Earth took place in 2003, it reached the closest distance to our planet in 60,000 years. This year, the Red Planet’s closest approach to Earth will happen on May 30 at 21:36 UTC. It will be located at 46.7 million miles away from us, said astronomers at the Hubble project.

Mars One: ‘Mars is the next giant leap for mankind’

Several space agencies worldwide are committed to reach Mars within the next two decades, including NASA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Mars One. Each of them has a different view about the journey, but all three are investing billions in research and development, to better understand the Red Planet.

Mars One is a non-profit foundation which aims to “establish the first human settlement on Mars.” According to its official website, the first mission is expected to depart in 2020, while humans will travel to the planet in 2026, in a one-way journey.

An estimated 200,000 people have responded to the foundation’s calls to recruit astronauts, even when there is no guaranteed return trip. Mars One explained that a return mission would be “complex, expensive and risky,” while a one-way travel is “far less complex.”

“Mars One has already started contracting established aerospace companies to work on the required systems. All systems require design, construction, and testing, but no scientific breakthroughs are required to send humans to Mars and to sustain life there,” said Mars One.

SpaceX wants to settle human establishments in Mars

SpaceX, the private space company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, is currently planning a 2018 mission to Mars. The company would send a Dragon capsule using a Falcon Heavy rocket, to land on the dry Martian surface.

Elon Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla Motors, said in 2016 that taking humans to the Red Planet would be “hard and dangerous in every way you can image.” Unlike Musk, Blue Origin’s founder Jeff Bezos has no plans to colonize Mars.

Bezos said last week at the Washington Post’s Transformers Conference that he does not support plans for establishing human settlements on Mars. He joked about why would people travel to Mars, saying that conditions there are harsh for humans.

“Earth is by far the best planet in the solar system. My friends who say they want to move to Mars one day? I say ‘Why don’t you go live in Antarctica first for three years and then see what you think. Because Antarctica is a garden paradise compared to Mars'” Bezos was quoted as saying by USA Today.

NASA’s determined to reach the Red Planet

NASA has already launched robotic missions to Mars, in order to understand how the fascinating planet works. Currently, Opportunity and Curiosity are evaluating severe conditions that interfere in the Mars’ atmosphere and land.

The agency will also send the InSight lander to Mars, which seeks to collect data about the deep interior of the rocky planet. By 2020, NASA will carry out the Mars 2020 mission, which aims to send a high-tech rover equipped with complex tools.


Source: Hubble Space Telescope (Press Release)