On April 8, 2014, our planet Earth in its smaller, faster orbit passes in between the sun and red planet Mars. Our motion in orbit places Mars opposite the sun as seen in our sky, in other words, rising at sunset and up all night! Astronomers will say that Mars is in opposition to the sun.
Mars is bright now! It’s easy to see with the unaided eye from all parts of Earth – as bright as the sky’s brightest star. Mars is brighter than it’s been for six years, since December 2007.
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How can I see Mars in April 2014? Mars ranks as the second-brightest planet in the April 2014 evening sky, after the giant planet Jupiter. Mars and the star Sirius have about the same brightness, but it’ll easy to distinguish Mars from Sirius – or from Jupiter – because Mars is so red in color. Meanwhile, you might notice that Sirius sparkles in an array of color while Jupiter is cream-colored and, like Mars, shines with a steadier light.
Mars appears in the east at nightfall, close to the horizon after sunset and ascending in the east as night passes. Jupiter and Sirius, on the other hand, appear on the other side of the sky at sunset, on opposite sides of the very noticeable constellation Orion.
Plus Mars is near a bright star now, Spica in the constellation Virgo. A bright red light visible in the east in the evening, near a sparkling blue-white star (Spica), is sure to be Mars.
When is Mars brightest, and why? At or near opposition, Earth comes closest to Mars for the year. Earth is passing between the sun and Mars now, so the distance between our two planets is least, and Mars, in turn, shines most brilliantly in our sky. Oppositions of Mars are not created equal. Mars is closer to us, and brighter, at this opposition than it has been since December of 2007.
As viewed through a telescope around opposition time, Mars’ disk not only covers more area of sky, but Mars’ surface reflects the light of the sun most directly back to Earth. These factors make Mars all the brighter.
Quite literally, this is Mars’ day in the sun. Take advantage, for Mars won’t be returning to opposition again until May 22, 2016.
By the way, Mars is not precisely closest to Earth on April 8, the day of opposition. Our two worlds will be closest together on April 14. On that night, Mars and the star Spica will appear near the moon as the moon undergoes a total eclipse!
Bottom line: The red planet Mars – next outward from Earth in orbit around the sun – is in opposition to the sun on April 8, 2014. On this day, Earth goes between the sun and Mars. Watch for Mars in the east in the evening, at its highest around midnight, and in the west in the hours before dawn.