Astronomy Essentials

Mars in 2022! Now’s the time to start watching

Orange ball with dark markings and white spot at the 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.

As October begins, Mars is rising in the east around 10 p.m. local time. It’s bright, and it’s red! Throughout northern fall, Mars will rise earlier each evening, edging toward its December 8, 2022, opposition.

Mars in October 2022: Mars is rising in the east around 10 p.m. local time. It’s brighter than most stars. And it’s noticeably red in color. Throughout October and November, Mars will continue to increase in brightness. And, each night, the red planet will rise earlier.
Opposition for Mars will fall at 6 UTC on December 8, 2022.
Mars closest to Earth: December 1, 2022. At its closest, Mars will be 4.5 light-minutes from Earth.
Opposition constellation: Taurus the Bull.
Opposition brightness: Magnitude -1.9 (maximum brightness for 2022). At this point, Mars will be brighter than all the stars, but not 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: Opposition marks the middle of the best time to see an outer planet. So start watching Mars now! The red planet reaches opposition only about every 26 months. At opposition – as Earth flies between Mars and the sun, placing Mars opposite the sun in our sky – it’ll rise in the east at sunset, reach its highest point around midnight and set at dawn.

Finder charts

In early October, Mars rises in the east around 10 pm local time. By morning, the red planet is highest in the sky. By the end of October, Mars appears over 14 arcseconds across through a telescope. And it finally brightens to -1.1 magnitude. The reddish star near Mars is Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Also, beautiful Pleiades glimmers nearby. Chart via John Jardine Goss/ EarthSky.
Mars near the green ecliptic line with Orion below in the sky.
In October 2022, Mars is high in the sky at sunrise. It’ll be near the easy-to-spot constellation Orion the Hunter. Notice how bright and red Mars is now. Mars will continue to brighten over the next few months. We’ll fly between Mars and the sun in December. Chart via John Jardine Goss / EarthSky.

Moon occults Mars on December 7-8

The moon occults, or passes in front of, Mars at 04:21 UTC on December 8. The lunar occultation of Mars is visible from parts of the Americas, Europe and Northern Africa. Mars’ apparent diameter will be 17 arcseconds. And it’ll be shining at magnitude -1.9. So Mars will be big through a telescope and bright to the eye! The moon will be fully illuminated, but you should be able to glimpse Mars near the moon in binoculars.

Mars lunar cccultation map and local times by IOTA

View from above the solar system, December 2022

Mars and Earth orbits with sun at center, planets around, and zodiac names on outer edge.
View larger. | Heliocentric view of solar system, 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. 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. It remained inconspicuous throughout the early months of 2022.

Five images of Mars showing apparent size difference near opposition.
View larger. | 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. Whenever it passes opposition, every two 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 to February 2, 2023. Mars will appear 17 arcseconds 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. During the second half of 2022, Mars shines as a bright red ruby in the evening sky. It’ll reach opposition – when Earth will fly between Mars and the sun – on December 8, 2022.

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! 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.

Why is Mars sometimes bright: Moon and Mars rising above a ridgeline, with a glorious display of green northern lights filling most of the sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Abigail Atienza caught the waning gibbous moon and red planet Mars (on the right) with the northern lights along the Road to Nowhere, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, on September 6, 2020. Thank you, Abigail. See more photos of Mars at its closest in 2020.

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. 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).

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

Not so for little Mars. 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

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 the red planet. 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.
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 in which we can see the Pleiades and the constellation of Taurus with the Planet Mars in between these two… below in the horizon appears like announcing the autumn sky the imposing constellation of Orion.” Thank you, Miguel!

Seeing red

Mars appears as a reddish light in the sky and is often called the red planet. Mars is currently near two obvious red stars in the sky. So, it might be fun to compare their color and intensity of red.

Mars appears red because of iron oxide in the dust that covers Mars. 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. Indeed, those three colors are what you may see when you gaze upon Mars.

On the other hand, the surface temperature determines the color of a star. 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 may be hard to detect, some stars are noticeably colorful.

Because Mars is in the constellation Taurus, you will notice reddish-orange Aldebaran nearby in the sky. Then, lower in the sky is mighty Orion with the famous red supergiant star, Betelgeuse.

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?

Bottom line: Mars alternates years in appearing bright and faint in our night sky. Throughout 2021, Mars was faint. But by October 2022, Mars is bright. And it’ll brighten still more by its December 8, 2022, opposition.

Photos of bright Mars in 2018, from the EarthSky community

Photos of bright Mars in 2020, from the EarthSky community

Posted 
September 28, 2022
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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