In the year 2018, Mars was brighter than all the stars. It was even brighter than the second-brightest planet, Jupiter. It was a blazing red dot of flame in our night sky for several months. In 2019, Mars was mostly faint. It was barely noticeable in our sky. Why? Why is Mars bright in some years, but faint in others? And why is Mars expected to brighten dramatically again in 2020?
Let’s talk about this week first. The week of March 16, 2020, has been a good time to come to know Mars. That’s because – this week – the waning moon is sweeping past Mars and several other planets in the east before sunup. Plus Mars is near bright Jupiter on the sky’s dome now. Its conjunction with Jupiter – when the two planets will appear only 0.7 degrees apart (about the width of your little finger held at arm’s length) will be March 20. Mars is relatively faint now. But you can use the juxtaposition of Mars and Jupiter – and the waning moon – to locate the planet on the sky’s dome this week. Read more.
So Mars can be faint, or it can be a bright planet. Keep reading to learn why the appearance of Mars varies so widely in our sky, making Mars one of the most interesting planets to watch!
More than any other bright planet, the appearance of Mars in our night sky changes from year to year. Its dramatic swings in brightness are part of the reason the early stargazers named Mars for their god of war; sometimes, the war god rests and sometimes he grows fierce! Mars was faint throughout 2017, bright in 2018, and was faint again for most of 2019. Mars is relatively faint now, a not-very-noticeable light in our eastern predawn sky.
Why? Why does Mars sometimes appear very bright, and sometimes very faint?
The first thing to realize is that Mars isn’t a very big world. It is only 4,219 miles (6,790 km) in diameter, making it only slightly more than half Earth’s size (7,922 miles or 12,750 km in diameter).
The small size of Mars is your first clue to its varying brightness. The small size means that, when Mars is bright, its brightness isn’t due to bigness, as is the case with the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter.
Instead, the main reason for Mars’ extremes in brightness has to do with its nearness (or lack of nearness) to Earth.
Mars orbits the sun one step outward from Earth. The distances between Earth and Mars change as both worlds orbit around the sun. Sometimes Earth and Mars are on the same side of the solar system, and hence near one another. At other times, as it was for much of 2017 and was again for much of 2019, Mars was moving on the opposite side of the solar system from Earth.
Look at the diagrams below, which show Earth and Mars in their respective orbits around the sun in mid-2018 and this month, March 2020 … and then in October 2020, when Earth and Mars will be closest for this two-year period.
Earth takes a year to orbit the sun once. Mars takes about two years to orbit once. Opposition for Mars – when Earth passes between Mars and the sun – happens every two years and 50 days.
So Mars’ brightness waxes and wanes in our sky about every two years. Because of this, 2018 was a very, very special year for Mars, when the planet was brighter than it had been since 2003. Astronomers called it a perihelic opposition (or perihelic apparition) of Mars. In other words, in 2018, we went between Mars and the sun – bringing Mars to opposition in our sky – around the same time Mars came closest to the sun. The word perihelion refers to Mars’ closest point to the sun in orbit.
Maybe you can see that – in years when we pass between Mars and the sun, when Mars is also closest to the sun – Earth and Mars are closest. That’s what happened in 2018.
2003 was the previous perihelic opposition for Mars. The red planet came within 34.6 million miles (55.7 million km) of Earth, closer than at any time in over nearly 60,000 years! That was really something.
And now? Earth will pass between Mars and the sun next on October 13, 2020. The red planet will appear brightest in our sky – very bright indeed and fiery red – around that time.
In recent months, Mars has been in that part of its cycle with respect to Earth in which it’ll hover – faint and not at all noticeable – in our predawn sky. Mars was in conjunction with the sun, that is, behind the sun as seen from Earth – on September 2, 2019. And now it remains far across the solar system from us, with Earth speeding around in its orbit, trying to catch Mars again. But it’ll be some months before we catch it.
And thus Mars alternates years in being bright in our sky, or faint. 2019 was a dull year, but 2020 will be an exciting one, for Mars! It’ll start slowly, though, with Mars sitting low in the east (much as it is now) for a few more months. Earth will still be far across the solar system from Mars, but rushing along in our smaller, faster orbit, trying to catch up. As northern summer 2020 approaches, Mars will begin to change. It’ll begin to brighten more dramatically as, finally, Earth begins to catch up to Mars.
Watch for it!
Bottom line: Mars alternates years in appearing bright and faint in our night sky. In 2018, we had a grand view of Mars … best since 2003! In 2019, we were in one of Mars’ faint years. But 2020 will – once again – be a bright year for Mars. Start watching the planet now, in the east before sunup.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.