Mars alternates between good and bad years for viewing in our sky, and 2014 is a good year. Why? Because Earth flew between the sun and Mars on April 8, 2014. We will be closest to Mars on April 14, the night of a total lunar eclipse visible from the Americas. In fact, circle the nights of April 13-14 and April 14-15 on your calendar. A bright nearly full moon will pair up with the red planet on both nights. The bright star Spica will also be nearby. Follow the links below to learn more about seeing Mars in 2014.
January, 2014. Mars spent the month of January 2014 getting brighter and more noticeable. It rose in the middle of the night in January, amidst the stars of the constellatio Virgo. Around daybreak, Mars shone at or near its highest point in the sky. In January, Mars was already brighter than Spica, Virgo’s brightest star.
February, 2014. In early February, Mars was rising in the east around 11 p.m. local time (the time on your clock, no matter where you are on the globe). By late February, it was coming up around 10 p.m. local time. Summer solstice in the Mars’ northern hemisphere took place on February 15.
March, 2014. In March, Mars was rising in mid-evening, becoming much more conspicuous in our sky. It began retrograde motion on March 1, a sure sign that its opposition was approaching.
April, 2014. This month presents Mars at its moment of glory. That’s because Earth has caught up with Mars in the race of the planets around the sun, and the distance between our two worlds is least. Indeed, Mars has not been this close since December 2007. We passed between Mars and the sun on April 8, at which time Mars appeared opposite the sun in our sky. Astronomers would say Mars was in opposition to the sun on April 8.
Our exact moment of being closest to Mars comes a few days later, on April 14. And, in an astounding piece of luck, Mars is near the moon that night, plus there is a total lunar eclipse! So we will have Mars – at its closest in more than six years – shining brightly next to the eclipsed moon on the night of April 14-15. Red Mars near the red moon! It doesn’t get any better. Pray for clear skies!
To prepare for eclipse night, or just to enjoy something beautiful in the night sky, watch for Mars near the moon on the night of April 13, too.
Throughout April 2014, Mars shines at its brightest best for the year, indeed for six years (since 2007), and moreover, Mars lights up Earth’s night sky from dusk until dawn. Mars is noticeable near the star Spica in the constellation Virgo on the sky’s dome. When there is no moon to guide you to Mars, try using the Big Dipper to “arc to Arcturus and spike to Spica” – and in 2014, to locate Mars. See the illustration above to learn how.
April is the best month in 2014 to view Mars through a telescope because then Earth and Mars will be closest together, and Mars will appear biggest through the eyepiece of your ‘scope. In April 2014, the north pole of Mars is tilted 22 degrees toward Earth. It’s summertime in that hemisphere of Mars, and Mars polar cap is shrinking in size.
Why will Mars be brightest and best in April, 2014? Mars is at its best about every two Earth years, whenever Earth flies between this planet and the sun. That happened last on April 8, 2014 at around 21 UTC (4 p.m. CDT).
Earth orbits the sun one step closer than Mars does, and we move in orbit more swiftly 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. After April 2014, Earth will lap Mars again in May 2016. To us Mars fans, that seems like a long time! That’s why every Martian opposition is very exciting.
Every opposition of Mars is special. As a general rule, Mars reaches opposition every other year, but oppositions of Mars are not created equal. Although Nature rarely repeats herself exactly, there is a cycle of near and far oppositions of Mars.
The cycle of extra-distant and extra-close Martian oppositions lasts 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. The opposition of Mars in 2012 was one of the least close.
So how about 2014? At the 2014 opposition, Mars is getting closer to the sun again and therefore it’s closer to us in 2014 than it was in 2012. Because it’s now getting closer to the sun, its closest point to Earth is not on the date of opposition (April 8), but about a week later (April 14).
But it’s not as close at the April 2014 opposition as it will be in 2018.
In fact, in April 2014, Mars is shining as brightly in our sky as it has for six years. It has not been this bright in our sky since December 2007. But it’s not shining as brightly this year as it will in 2016 or 2018!
After April 2014, Mars will continue to be visible in our sky for the remainder of this year, all the while falling farther behind Earth in the race of the planets around the sun. In late April and May, Mars will be up in the east when the sun sets. Throughout Northern Hemisphere summer 2014, it’ll shine in our evening sky. By Northern Hemisphere autumn 2014, Mars will be rather inconspicuous, albeit still visible in our evening sky, shifting ever further southwestward as seen from northern latitudes. By the end of 2014, Mars will be exceedingly faint (but still visible to the eye), and very inconspicuous, low in the southwest after sunset.
Bottom line: April 2014 is the best time in six years to see Mars. Earth passed between Mars and the sun on April 8 (the Martian opposition). Earth and Mars are closest on April 14, and – on that night – Mars is near the moon as the moon undergoes a total lunar eclipse.