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Watch Mars Invade Our Sky: Biggest and Brightest Since 2007

This composite view of Mars from NASA orbiter images showcases the wildly varying topography of the the planet. Sky-watchers using telescopes will get a chance to see many of the major surface features on Mars as it makes its closest approach to Earth in over six years. Credit: NASA
This composite view of Mars from NASA orbiter images showcases the wildly varying topography of the planet. Sky-watchers using telescopes will get a chance to see many of the major surface features on Mars as it makes its closest approach to Earth in more than six years. Credit: NASA

You may have noticed that fiery-orange-hued, beacon-like star rising in the eastern evening sky—the planet Mars. No better time exists than now to get close and personal with the red planet.

On Tuesday, April 8, the dusty, ruddy world reaches what is known as opposition, when the planet and the sun are on opposite sides of Earth. This means that sky-watchers may follow Mars over the course of the entire night, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.

While this occurs every 26 months, this year’s event creates the perfect cosmic alignment to have Mars shine its biggest and brightest in the evening sky in nearly seven years.

Because the orbit of Mars is not perfectly circular, the planet actually makes its closest approach to Earth one week later on April 14, at about 59.7 million miles (96 million kilometers) from us. Its relative proximity will make it shine at magnitude -1.5. That is around the same brightness as the most brilliant star visible this season, Sirius (now located in the low southwestern, early evening sky).

Mars shines bright orange in the low eastern sky after nightfall in the constellation Virgo, near its brightest star Spica throughout April. Credit: SkySafari
Mars shines bright orange in the low eastern sky after nightfall in the constellation Virgo, near its brightest star Spica, throughout April. Credit: SkySafari

A Rusty World

The fourth rock from the sun, Mars, is about half the size of our planet and has a third of our gravity. It is more than one and half times farther from the sun than Earth is.

Like a rusty nail, the planet’s reddish-orange color is caused by oxidized iron (also known as rust) on its surface. Mars is also covered by fine dust, which is often whipped up into dust storms by 186-mile-per-hour (300-kilometer-per-hour) winds. With mountains three times higher than Everest and canyons five times longer than the Grand Canyon, Mars is an adventure traveler’s paradise.

Blessed with an atmosphere, polar caps that change with seasons, and 24-hour (and 37-minute) long days, Mars is the most Earth-like of all the planets in the solar system. NASA rover missions in recent years have even established that Mars likely had ancient channels—cut not by Martians but by ancient floods.

See for Yourself

This was the view of Mars through a 6 inch backyard telescope in Fayetteville, Arkansas on April 5, 2014. The tiny  white spot on the right-side limb of the planet is Mons Olympus - the largest volcano in the solar system. Credit: Joel Tonyan
This was the view of Mars through a 6 inch backyard
telescope in Fayetteville, Arkansas on April 5, 2014.
The tiny white spot on the right-side limb of the planet
is Mons Olympus – the largest volcano in the solar
system. Credit: Joel Tonyan

Look for Mars to rise soon after local sunset over the eastern horizon within the constellation Virgo, the Maiden. It reaches its highest point in the southern sky around 1 a.m. local time.

While this Martian apparition won’t be as impressive as the one in 2003, when the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 56,000 years, this year’s opposition will bring it close enough so that surface features will be visible through backyard telescopes.

Because the orange-hued planet will never rise very high this season in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, there is a constant battle with the blurring effect of Earth’s thick atmosphere.

The first feature that will catch your eye will be the frosty north polar cap. Consisting of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice), the caps glow bright white and appear conspicuous because the planet’s northern hemisphere is now tilted some 23 degrees toward Earth.

And because it’s now summertime in the northern hemisphere of Mars, careful observers (using high magnification with smaller telescopes) can actually follow the highly reflective polar cap as it undergoes a thaw and shrinks over the next few months.

There is no doubt that a nightly vigil will quickly pay off, as your eyes begin to pick out subtle details of the soft Martian surface features. A small backyard scope (with at least a four-inch mirror) will begin to reveal a pattern of light and dark shadings similar to those seen on our moon. With handy up-to-date maps now available online, identifying a variety of markings becomes possible.

Mars as photographed in 2012 by Sean Walker with a 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope.  © Sky & Telescope: Sean Walker
Mars as photographed in 2012 by Sean Walker with a 12.5-inch
Newtonian telescope. © Sky & Telescope: Sean Walker

Don’t expect to see little green men or canals, though. Mars watching requires patience and persistence, but it is well worth the effort. Since Mars rotates on its axis in just a little over 24 hours, it always shows off a different face. Check out Sky and Telescope‘s amazing Mars Profiler web-based app that can show you what side of the planet is facing you at any time, with major features marked. Mars should offer great views not only this week but also throughout April, providing plenty of opportunities to tour the planet’s ruddy surface.

Now is the time to take that telescope that’s been collecting dust out of your closet and take a tour of the red planet: It is the biggest and brightest it will get until 2016.

Note: For those of you who don’t have a telescope handy or are clouded out, tune in to a live webcast called Night of the Red Planet, hosted by Astronomers Without Borders and the Virtual Telescope Project on April 8 at 23:00 UT (7 p.m. EST), for a tour of Mars through a large telescope and with an astronomer guide. Imagine touring another world right from your laptop or mobile device—how cool is that?

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

Comments

  1. Rose Kelly
    E Mesa, Arizona
    April 17, 5:15 pm

    Great view w/naked eye! W/my Nikon camera took a chance.
    Against a black sky a pinpoint orange dot is visible!!!Amaziing. Thx for the info.

  2. Alex Duncan
    Midale, SK, Canada
    April 14, 9:35 pm

    If you can see the moon, you can see mars. They are right next to each other. Get Ready for the blood moon tonight people!

  3. Aroha
    New Zealand
    April 13, 7:00 am

    Wow got an excellent view of Mars last night 12/4/14 via my telescope in the North Island of NZ. Tonight however was clouded over so unable to see

  4. Gloria
    Fresno, California U.S.A
    April 13, 5:01 am

    Here in Fresno CA it looks bright and beautiful. Biggest in the sky, orange too. Thankyou so much for the info.

  5. zeeba hakim
    delhi
    April 13, 1:52 am

    Superb information thanks for sharing.

  6. madiop ndiaye
    mbour
    April 10, 5:35 pm

    l am happy the info. Astronomy events is my favorite

  7. gcsarmah
    Jorhat,India.
    April 10, 10:27 am

    Very nice.Thanks for the information.

  8. ayoade adubi
    igboora,oyo state,nigeria
    April 9, 1:00 pm

    i don’t think it can be seen here at igboora city.

  9. Nathália
    Brazil
    April 9, 11:33 am

    The space is perfect.

  10. Loren Lewis
    USA
    April 9, 11:18 am

    It looks to me like Mars’ face got the losing end of a fight.

  11. Joe
    United States
    April 8, 9:16 pm

    Is that visible in Ohio cause I don`t see it anywhere :/

  12. NDU-KINGS
    ABUJA NIGERIA
    April 8, 6:48 pm

    Can I see it from here?

  13. Bob martin
    April 8, 6:29 pm

    can u see it from northern new jersey

  14. Johnny
    Not in Africa
    April 8, 4:40 pm

    No. You will need to be on a white continent to see it.

  15. Sam Richards
    Cornwall UK
    April 8, 4:16 pm

    Not 100% sure but think we can see it in the easy here in Cornwall near Plymouth 21:16

  16. lindelani
    south africa
    April 8, 2:39 pm

    I would also like to know if I could see it from south africa

  17. quewin
    South Africa
    April 8, 1:43 pm

    sounds interesting, will you be able to see it from South Africa?