Mars alternates between good and bad years for viewing in our sky, and 2014 is a good year! Why? Because Earth will fly between the sun and Mars on April 8, 2014, and, for the months around that time, Mars will be at its brightest and best for this two-year period. It’ll also be in a convenient place for viewing. Between now and April, you can start watching for Mars in the night sky. Mars looks like a bright red star, although it shines with a steadier light than the twinkling stars. Mars now rises in the east at mid-to-late evening, possibly before your bedtime. By the time April comes rolling around, Mars will be shining from dusk till dawn.
Circle March 17 and March 18 on your calendar. These dates present an especially good time to identify Mars, because the waning gibbous moon couples up with Mars on Monday, March 17, and Tuesday, March 18. Follow the links below to learn more about seeing Mars in 2014.
January, 2014. Mars spends the month of January 2014 getting brighter and more noticeable. It’s rising in the middle of the night in January, and, around daybreak, shines at or near its highest point in the sky. Mars, in front of the constellation Virgo the Maiden, shines close to the star Spica on the sky’s dome in January. It is already brighter than Spica. It’ll get brighter still as Earth sweeps from from behind Mars in our smaller and faster orbit around the sun, causing the distance between our two worlds to decrease.
February, 2014. Mars is still in front of Virgo, still near the bright star Spica. By early February, Mars is 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’s coming up around 10 p.m. local time. Mars reaches its highest point for the night about one hour before dawn in early February and about two hours before dawn late in the month. Summer solstice in the Mars’ northern hemisphere takes place on February 15.
March, 2014. In March, Mars is in Virgo, near Spica. Mars will be rising in mid-evening in March, becoming much more conspicuous in our sky. It’ll begin retrograde motion on March 1, a sure sign that its opposition is approaching.
April, 2014. At opposition on April 8, 2014, Mars in Virgo, will be opposite the sun in Earth’s sky. The sun, Earth and Mars will be located along a line in space, as viewed from above. As seen in Earth’s sky, Mars will be rising in the east when the sun is setting in the west. It’ll be bright! And it’ll be fiery red in color. April will be 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 will be tilted 22 degrees toward Earth. It’ll be summertime in that hemisphere of Mars, and Mars polar cap will be 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 happens next 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’ll be closer to us than it was in 2012. But it’s not as close at the April 2014 opposition as it will be in 2018.
Thus, in April 2014, Mars will be shining as brightly in our sky as it will for this two-year period. But it won’t shine as bright 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: In 2014, the Red Planet Mars is at its best in March, April and May. Earth will pass between the sun and Mars on April 8 (the Martian opposition). Mars alternates between good and bad years in our sky, and 2014 is a good year!