Mars will be perfectly visible in the night’s tonight, just as NASA‘s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on the planet.
On Thursday, Mars is due to rise just after sunset, at 17:40 GMT, and will be visible in the south throughout the night as a orange red dot, just above the Moon.
Perseverance, meanwhile, is scheduled to land on the red planet at 8.55pm (GMT), around 124 million miles (200 million km) away from Earth.
Stargazers around the won’t need any special equipment to see Mars, although a pair of binoculars will offer a better view.
Mars (pictured) is moving steadily to the west and you can usually recognise it by its distinctive colour, as well as its distinct lack of twinkling. Tonight it’s set to appear next to the Moon as a small dot and can be viewed without a telescope
‘Mars is one of the easiest planets to see in the night sky, blazing bright orange and visible for almost the whole year,’ said Osnat Katz, an expert in space history and a PhD Student at University College London, in a piece for the Conversation.
‘It’s been high up in the sky since the second half of last year, and you don’t need any special equipment to see it.
‘As long as it’s a clear night, you can generally spot it.’
Mars can be recognised by its distinctive rusty red colour, as well as its distinct lack of twinkling. Stars twinkle, while planets usually shine steadily.
There will also be a fairly modest close approach or a ‘appulse’ of the Moon and Mars tonight – meaning they will appear next to each other in the night sky.
An image of what the sky will look like tonight from Stellarium, the open-source planetarium software, captured by Matt Bothwell from the University of Cambridge. For reference, the Orion constellation is on the left
The day the rover lands, there will be a modest close approach of the Moon and Mars, meaning they will appear next to each other in the night sky
That’s handy for stargazers, who will just have to find the Moon in the sky if they want to find Mars this evening.
‘It doesn’t have physical consequences, but it does look impressive, and it’s a great chance to take some space and do some planet watching,’ Katz said.
‘Wherever you are in the world, look south for the Moon, and the little orange-red dot you see near it will be Mars.’
Today’s Moon phase is a waxing crescent with 38 per cent illumination, meaning it will appear as a Cheshire Cat grin next to the small dot that is Mars.
While tonight’s spectacle can be enjoyed without any equipment, a small pair of binoculars can pick out the Moon’s craters in sharp, striking detail, Katz adds.
However, Mars is too small and far away for binoculars ‘to do much more than make the planet look like a slightly bigger orange red dot’.
You also won’t be able to catch the two together through a telescope as they’re still a bit too far away from each other.
Around 6:40pm, those brave enough to face the evening’s winter chill will also be rewarded with a display of fuzzy, twinkling pinpricks, just left of Mars.
These twinkly pinpricks are the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, a group of hot blue and extremely luminous stars more than 400 light years away that have formed within the last 100 million years.
‘You’ll be able to see anywhere between six and nine with the naked eye, or through binoculars or a telescope,’ said Katz.
Waxing crescent moon seen with an astronomical telescope. This is how it will appear tonight. The Moon takes 27.3 days to orbit Earth, but the lunar phase cycle (from new Moon to new Moon) is 29.5 days
On October 6 last year, Mars was closer to Earth than at any point in the past 17 years.
The Red Planet was at its point of opposition, with the Earth passing directly between it and the Sun, making it appear to Earthlings ‘effectively as a full Mars’, NASA said.
Tonight’s display will be nowhere near as pronounced as last October, Dr Matt Bothwell, from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, told MailOnline, and the Moon and Mars will appear ‘close-ish’.
‘This doesn’t mean they are physically close, just that they line up from our point of view,’ he said.
‘This is going to happen once a month for a while – in fact on March 19, they will be even closer.’
‘What happened last October was Mars being physically close to the Earth, which is rarer – it happens once every 26 months, in fact, when our orbits sync up.’
As for Perseverance, the descent of the $2.2 billion car-sized spacecraft will be live streamed by NASA from 7:15pm GMT.
The rover will have to endure the so-called ‘seven minutes of terror’ – a spell of tumultuous conditions that batter the craft as it enters the Martian atmosphere and approaches the surface.
Perseverance is a six-wheeled vehicle which is the same size as a large car and it will be accompanied by an autonomous four pound (1.8kg) helicopter called Ingenuity which will study Mars’s atmosphere
Perseverance’s primary goal is to look for ‘biosignatures’ – signs of past or present microbial life – as well as gathering rock samples which will be picked up by another mission in 2026. However, it is equipped with a host of tools which will perform a variety of tasks
Perseverance is carrying seven instruments that will analyse samples from the surface, including an advanced panoramic camera, a ground-penetrating radar and an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for analysis of chemical elements.
The NASA rover, which launched from Florida on July 30, will set the samples aside for retrieval by a fetch rover launching in 2026.
Under an elaborate multi-billion plan by NASA and the European Space Agency, the geologic treasure would arrive on Earth in the early 2030s.
Perseverance will be the last of three spacecraft that were launched last July to reach Mars.
China’s orbiter and rover combination craft – named Tianwen-1 – arrived into Martian orbit on February 10, a day after the UAE’s orbiter probe, Hope.
The UAE, China and NASA took advantage of a period last July when Mars and Earth were favourably aligned to launch their exploratory missions.
NASA MARS 2020: THE MISSION WILL SEE THE PERSEVERANCE ROVER AND INGENUITY HELICOPTER SEARH FOR LIFE
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of ancient life on on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth.
Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover will explore an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.
It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the life.
Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) will search for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet
The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 witht he rover and helicopter inside – and will land on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance is designed to land inside the crater and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps by the later 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s ‘sky-crane’ system