Earth flew between the sun and Mars on March 3, 2012, placing Mars at its brightest and best for this two-year period. Throughout March 2012, as Venus and Jupiter dazzled us in the western sky, Mars – the world most like Earth in our solar system – has been appearing in the east at nightfall.
March, April and May 2012 are the best months to see the Red Planet shining like a brilliant red beacon in our night sky. By Northern Hemisphere summertime, Mars will remain respectably bright, but not nearly so noticeable as Earth – in its faster, smaller orbit around the sun – pulls ahead of Mars in orbit.
At opposition on March 3, 2012, Mars lay opposite the sun in Earth’s sky. The sun, Earth and Mars lay along a line in space, as viewed from above. Yes, Mars was best in early March. But you can look for Mars in the coming months of 2012, too.
Why was Mars brightest in early March, 2012? Mars is at its best about every two Earth years, whenever Earth flies between this planet and the sun. That happened on March 3, 2012 at 20 UTC (2 p.m. CST). Earth orbits closer to the sun than Mars does, and we move in orbit more swiftly in orbit than Mars. Our world laps Mars on the average every 780 Earth days – a little over every two years. When Earth goes between the sun and Mars, placing Mars opposite the sun in our sky, astronomers call it an opposition of Mars.
So Earth, in its smaller orbit, swings between Mars and the sun every other year, at progressively later dates. Earth will next lap Mars in April 2014. After that, Earth will lap Mars in May 2016. To us Mars fans, that seems like a long time to wait for the next good time to see Mars! That’s why every Martian opposition is very exciting.
Can you still see Mars after March 2012? Yes! In some ways, it’s easier to see in April and May, because it’s already in the sky when the sun goes down. A good time to locate Mars in the coming months is when it’s near the moon in the night sky. That will happen next on April 2, 3 and 4.
How to see Mars in 2012. So March, April and May 2012 are a grand time to see the red planet. Mars looks like a bright reddish star, although it shines with a steadier light than the twinkling stars.
In March 2012, look for Mars in the eastern sky at nightfall – highest in the sky around midnight – and in the west as morning dawn starts to light the sky. In April and May 2012, look for Mars already up in the east to south in the evening.
Mars is made easier to spot in 2012 because it’s near Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. Regulus won’t come close to matching the red planet Mars in brightness in March 2012, even though Regulus ranks as one of the brightest stars in our sky. Be sure to notice the contrasting colors of Mars and Regulus. Mars is reddish, while Regulus is blue-white.
After March 2012, Mars will continue to be visible in our sky for the remainder of this year, getting fainter and farther away all the while. In April, it will be up in the east when the sun sets. Throughout Northern Hemisphere summer 2012, it’ll adorn our evening sky. By Northern Hemisphere autumn 2012, Mars will be rather inconspicuous, albeit still visible in our evening sky, shifting ever further southwestward. By the end of 2012, Mars will be exceedingly faint (but still visible to the eye), and very inconspicuous, low in the southwest after sunset.
Every opposition of Mars is special. As a general rule, Mars reaches opposition every other year, but oppositions of Mars are all slightly different. Of course – because Nature rarely repeats herself exactly. Extra-distant and extra-close Martian oppositions recur in a cycle lasting 15 to 17 years. Extra-close oppositions happen when we go between Mars and the sun around the time Mars is closest to the sun. Makes sense, right? Mars is closest to the sun. We go between the sun and Mars. So Mars is closest to us. The last extra-close opposition of Mars took place on August 28, 2003, and the next one will be on July 27, 2018.
So how about 2012? This opposition of Mars was one of the least close. Mars was farthest from the sun on February 15, 2012. That means that, although Mars was brighter and closer at its March 3, 2012 opposition than it had been for two years – and brighter and closer than it will be again until 2014 – it’s not as bright and close as it can sometimes be.
Bottom line: In 2012, the Red Planet Mars is at its best in March, April and May. Earth passed between the sun and Mars on March 3 (the Martian opposition). This is a great time to see Mars, in short. By the way, in March 2012, the planets directly about-face of Mars at nightfall are the even brighter planets Jupiter and Venus. But Jupiter and Venus set during the evening while Mars shines all night long!