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Mars Exploration Program


Mars Close Approaches

Illustration of Mars in our night sky.

Mars Close Approach to Earth:
May 30, 2016

See Mars in the Night Sky!

Simply go outside and look up, contact your local planetarium, or look for a star party near you.

In 2016, the planet Mars will appear brightest from May 18 to June 3.

Mars Close Approach is May 30, 2016. That is the point in Mars' orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers). Mars reaches its highest point around midnight -- about 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one third of the distance between the horizon and overhead. Mars will be visible for much of the night.

By mid-June, Mars will become fainter as Mars and Earth travel farther away from each other in their orbits around the Sun.

Miss seeing Mars Close Approach in 2016? The next Mars Close Approach is July 31, 2018.

Mars' Appearance in the sky

In 2016, Mars will appear brightest from May 18-June 3. Its closest approach to Earth is May 30. That is the point in Mars' orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Close Approach

What is Mars Close Approach?

Close approach is when Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun. Close is a relative term. The minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is about 54.6 million kilometers. However, that doesn't happen very often.

Illustration that displays Mars and Earth at it's close approach to each other in their orbits around the Sun.

If Earth and Mars had perfectly circular orbits, their minimum distance would always be the same. However, they have elliptical (egg-shaped) paths.

In addition, gravitational tugging by planets constantly changes the shape of their orbits a little bit. Giant Jupiter especially influences the orbit of Mars.

The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted with respect to each other.

All of these factors mean that not all close encounters are equal. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years! It won't be that close again until the year 2287.

When Mars and Earth are close to each other, Mars appears very bright in our sky. It also makes it easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye. The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years.

Close Approach: Mars HoaxClose Approach: Mars Hoax

However, don't be fooled by the Mars Hoax! Since 2003, this urban legend gets circulated through email and social media every time Mars makes a close approach.

The message is that Mars will look as big as the Moon in our night sky. If that were true, we'd be in big trouble given the gravitational pulls on Earth, Mars, and our Moon!

Illustration of viewing Earth from Mars
When does Mars Close Approach Occur?

Mars Close Approach happens about every 26 months. It is closely related to Mars Opposition and Mars Retrograde.

Since Mars and Earth are at their closest, it's generally the best time to go to Mars. Many Mars missions have taken advantage of the close distance to visit the red planet. That's why, depending on budgets, you'll often see that Mars missions launch about every two years:

2001:      Mars Odyssey
2003:      Mars Exploration Rovers
2005:      Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
2007:      Mars Phoenix Lander
2009:      (skipped opportunity)
2011:      Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover
2013:      MAVEN

Archived Content 2003 and 2005 >>