Astronomy Essentials

Mars in 2022: Earth flies between Mars and sun tonight

Chart showing the sun, Earth, moon and Mars in line with a straight line through all of them.
As seen from above the solar system on the night of December 7-8, 2022, the sun, Earth, moon and planet Mars make an approximate line in space today. It’s the night of Mars’ once-in-2-years opposition – when it’s opposite the sun in our sky – rising in the east as the sun sinks below the western horizon. Plus, from Earth that night, we see a full moon. And – as a bonus – the moon will cover Mars on December 7-8, blotting it temporarily from view, in an event called an occultation by astronomers. Wow!

Mars in 2022

Opposition for Mars will fall at 6 UTC on December 8, 2022 (midnight CST on the night of December 7-8).
How to see Mars in the sky: At opposition – as Earth flies between Mars and the sun, placing Mars opposite the sun in our sky – Mars rises in the east at sunset, reach its highest point around midnight and sets at dawn. How can you recognize it? For one thing, it’s brighter than even the brightest stars. And it’s noticeably red in color. But, there’s an even better way to identify Mars on the night of December 7-8. That night, Mars is not only at opposition, but also near December’s full moon. If you look and don’t see Mars near the moon, that might be because the moon is in front of Mars! Read about the December 7-8 occultation of Mars.
Mars was closest to Earth at 2 UTC on December 1, 2022 (8 p.m. CST on November 30). At its closest, Mars was 4.5 light-minutes from Earth.
At opposition in 2022, Mars’ constellation is in front of the constellation Taurus the Bull.
Its opposition brightness is magnitude -1.9 (maximum brightness for 2022). At this point, although Mars is brighter than all the stars, it still won’t be as as bright as Venus or Jupiter.
Through a telescope, at opposition, Mars will appear 17.01 arcseconds across. Major features on Mars will show surface coloration, plus Mars’ white polar cap will be visible.
Note: Mars reaches opposition only about every 26 months. This 2022 opposition is very special because – as seen from around the world – the moon will appear near Mars in the sky. From some locations, including parts of North America and Europe, the moon pass in front of Mars on the same night as opposition, December 7-8.

Read: Moon occults Mars on December 7-8

Read: December full moon mimics the June sun

Available now! 2023 EarthSky lunar calendar. A unique and beautiful poster-sized calendar showing phases of the moon every night of the year. Makes a great gift!

Where to watch Mars opposition and occultation online

View of part of moon with Mars next to it, and poster text.
The Virtual Telescope Project, based in Rome, Italy, will host an online observing event showing the Mars occultation to people worldwide. Details on Virtual Telescope’s event here.

Finder chart

2 positions of Mars along green slanted line of ecliptic and Aldebaran, Pleiades, and Hyades labeled.
In the evenings throughout December 2022, bright red Mars slides among the stars of the Horns of Taurus the Bull, heading toward the shimmering Pleiades star cluster. Mars is well placed for observing all night. By the way, Mars was closest to Earth for this 2-year period on November 30, 2022 (December 1 in UTC). It is 50.6 million miles (81.4 million km) away. Mars will continue to brighten until December 8, 2022, when it will reach its once-in-2-years opposition. Also, the nearby red star Aldebaran can guide you to a V-shaped star cluster known as the Hyades. Chart via John Jardine Goss/ EarthSky.

View from above the solar system, December 2022

Circle with sun at center, planets around, and zodiac names on outer edge.
View larger. | Heliocentric view of solar system for December 2022. Notice that – in its smaller and faster orbit around the sun – Earth catches up to and passes Mars in December. Chart via Guy Ottewell.

Sometimes, Mars is faint

Mars was in our evening sky for much of 2021. But, around October, the red planet disappeared from our sky for a time. Its superior conjunction – when it was most directly behind the sun as seen from Earth – was October 8, 2021. Then, some weeks afterwards – as both Earth and Mars moved in their respective orbits around the sun – Mars returned to our sky as a faint red dot in the east before sunrise. To be sure, it remained inconspicuous throughout the early months of 2022.

Five images of Mars showing apparent size difference near opposition.
The geometry of Mars’ orbit is such that it spends much longer periods of time at large distances from the Earth than it does close to us, which provides added incentive to observe it in the weeks around opposition. When it passes opposition, every 2 years, Mars appears large and bright for only a few weeks. The panel above shows the month-by-month change in Mars’ apparent size from October 13, 2022, to February 2, 2023. Mars will appear 17 arcseconds wide on December 8, 2022. Image via Dominic Ford/ In-The-Sky.org. Used with permission.

Sometimes, Mars is bright

Mars steadily brightened in the first half of 2022, first as a morning object. But later, during the second half of 2022, Mars shines as a bright red ruby in the evening sky. Ultimately, it’ll reach opposition – when Earth will fly between Mars and the sun – on December 8, 2022.

Indeed, Mars’ dramatic swings in brightness (and its red color) are why the early stargazers named Mars for their God of War.

Sometimes the war god rests. And sometimes he grows fierce! In fact, these changes are part of the reason Mars is so fascinating to watch in the night sky.

Want to follow Mars? Bookmark EarthSky’s monthly night sky guide.

Mars isn’t very big

To understand why Mars varies so much in brightness in Earth’s sky, first realize that Mars isn’t a very big world. Indeed, it’s 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).

On the other hand, consider Mars in contrast to Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Jupiter is 86,881 miles (140,000 km) in diameter. As an illustration, more than 20 planets the size of Mars could be lined up side by side in front of Jupiter. Basically, Jupiter always looks bright, because it’s so big.

Not so for little Mars, however. Rather, its extremes in brightness have to do with its nearness (or lack of nearness) to Earth.

Space photos of Earth and Mars side by side, on black background, with Earth much bigger.
Mars isn’t very big, so its brightness – when it is bright – isn’t due to its bigness, as is true of Jupiter. Mars’ brightness, or lack of brightness, is all about how close we are to the red planet. It’s all about where Earth and Mars are, relative to each other, in their respective orbits around the sun. Image via NASA.

Future Martian oppositions

So, when is the next opposition of Mars? The next time Mars will appear at its brightest for that two-year period in our sky? You guessed it. In January 2025! Check out the chart on this page that lists all oppositions of Mars from 1995 to 2037.

Earth's and Mars' orbits with Mars in different sizes at different points around its orbit.
There’s a 15-year cycle of Mars, whereby the red planet is brighter and fainter at opposition. In July 2018, we were at the peak of the 2-year cycle – and the peak of the 15-year cycle – and Mars was very, very bright! In 2020, we were also at the peak of the 2-year cycle; however, Earth and Mars were farther apart at Mars’ opposition than they were in 2018. Still, 2020’s opposition of Mars was excellent. So, in December 2022, Mars has a good opposition but will appear smaller and dimmer than in 2020, since we are farther away from it. Diagram by Roy L. Bishop. Copyright Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Used with permission. Visit the RASC estore to purchase the Observer’s Handbook, a necessary tool for all skywatchers.
Starry sky with Orion, Taurus, Mars, Pleiades over rocky horizon.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Miguel Ventura in Fafe, Portugal, captured this image on August 28, 2022, and said: “Every now and then and in addition to its natural beauty, the night sky and the whims of the universe offer us moments like this. With some planning and luck in the mix (truce from the clouds) I was able to photograph this magnificent alignment. We can see the Pleiades and the constellation of Taurus with the planet Mars between these two … below near the horizon the imposing constellation of Orion appears, announcing the autumn sky.” Thank you, Miguel!

Seeing red

Mars appears as a reddish light in the sky and, therefore, is often called the red planet. Mars is currently near two obvious red stars in the sky, reddish-orange Aldebaran and the famous red supergiant Betelgeuse. So, it’ll be fun to compare Mars’ color and intensity of red with that of Aldebaran or Betelgeuse.

Surface temperature is what determines star colors. The hottest stars are blue; the coolest stars are red. In fact, from hottest to coolest, the colors of stars range from blue, white, yellow, orange and red. And while the colors of stars might be hard to detect, some stars – like Aldebaran and Betelgeuse – are noticeably colorful.

Iron oxide

On the other hand, Mars appears red for a different reason. It’s red because of iron oxide in the dust that covers this desert world. Iron oxide gives rust and blood its red color. Rovers on Mars sampled the Martian dust and determined it contains three colors: reds, browns and oranges. So those three colors are what you may see when you gaze upon Mars.

Do you see red when you look at Mars, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse? Are they the same color? Do you see any other colors of stars?

Orange ball with well-defined dark marks and white spot at the north pole.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nancy Ricigliano captured Mars from Long Island, New York, on October 6, 2020, when it was closest to Earth. Thank you, Nancy. See more photos of Mars at its closest in 2020.

Bottom line: Mars has brightened throughout 2022 as it draws near its opposition on December 8. Plus, the moon will occult – pass in front of – Mars on December 7-8.

Photos of bright Mars in 2018, from the EarthSky community

Photos of bright Mars in 2020, from the EarthSky community

Posted 
December 7, 2022
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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