On April 8, 2014, our planet Earth in its orbit passes in between the sun and the red planet Mars. Because Mars is opposite the sun in our sky at this juncture, astronomers say that Mars is at opposition. Thus, Mars rises in the east around sunset, climbs highest in the sky around midnight and sets in the west around sunrise. For much of April 2014, you can watch this brilliant world shine from dusk till dawn.
At or near opposition, Earth comes closest to Mars for the year, and Mars, in turn, shines most brilliantly in our sky. Mars’ disk not only covers more area of sky around opposition time, but Mars’ surface reflects the light of the sun most directly back to Earth, making 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.
Mars ranks as the second-brightest planet in the April 2014 evening sky, after the giant planet Jupiter. Mars and the star Sirius exhibit about the same brightness, but it should be fairly easy to distinguish Mars from Sirius – or from Jupiter.
Mars appears in the east at dusk and nightfall, rather close to the horizon. Jupiter and Sirius, on the other hand, appear on opposite sides of the constellation Orion. You may notice that Sirius sparkles in an array of color whereas cream-colored Jupiter shines with a steadier light.
Meanwhile, Mars shines with a steadier light as well, though it glowers with a ruddy hue. Watch Mars, the fourth planet outward from the sun, as it lights up these April nights from dusk till dawn!