A spectacular image of Mars from the Hubble taken on 12 May 2016 when Mars was reaching opposition. Click the image for an annotated version.
The original caption:
This hemisphere of Mars contains landing sites for several NASA Mars surface robotic missions, including Viking 1 (1976), Mars Pathfinder (1997), and the still-operating Opportunity Mars rover. The landing sites of the Spirit and Curiosity Mars rovers are on the other side of the planet.
This observation was made just a few days before Mars opposition on May 22, when the sun and Mars will be on exact opposite sides of Earth, and when Mars will be at a distance of 47.4 million miles from Earth. On May 30, Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth in 11 years, at a distance of 46.8 million miles. Mars is especially photogenic during opposition because it can be seen fully illuminated by the sun as viewed from Earth.
The biennial close approaches between Mars and Earth are not all the same. Mars’ orbit around the sun is markedly elliptical; the close approaches to Earth can range from 35 million to 63 million miles.
They occur because about every two years Earth’s orbit catches up to Mars’ orbit, aligning the sun, Earth, and Mars in a straight line, so that Mars and the sun are on “opposing” sides of Earth. This phenomenon is a result of the difference in orbital periods between Earth’s orbit and Mars’ orbit. While Earth takes the familiar 365 days to travel once around the sun, Mars takes 687 Earth days to make its trip around our star. As a result, Earth makes almost two full orbits in the time it takes Mars to make just one, resulting in the occurrence of Martian oppositions about every 26 months.
Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)