Astronomy Essentials

Mars in 2024: It’s found in the morning sky

Dots and arrows showing path of Mars and Saturn in the month of April.
Mars and Saturn lie low in the morning twilight in April 2024. They shine with similar brightness and have a close pairing on the mornings of April 10 and 11. Saturn will climb a bit higher as the month goes on, and Mars will not move as much on the sky’s dome. By month’s end, Saturn will rise about two hours before sunrise and Mars will follow it about an hour later. Both planets will be easier to find in the coming months as they climb out of the morning glare. Chart via EarthSky.
  • Mars can appear bright or faint in our sky. 2024 is mostly a faint year. Mars became visible in the east before dawn in February. But it’s still faint and far across the solar system from Earth.
  • Mars will be climbing higher in the predawn sky as the days pass. It’ll be growing steadily brighter. Earth will be gaining on Mars, in our smaller, faster orbit around the sun.
  • Mars will start becoming noticeable in our skies around the September equinox 2024! By the year’s end, it’ll shine brightly at -1.2 magnitude. Its next opposition will come in January 2025.

2024 lunar calendars on sale now. Makes a great gift! Check it out here.

Mars in 2024

Opposition for Mars last fell on December 7-8, 2022. That’s when our planet Earth last flew between Mars and the sun. Mars will reach opposition again in January 2025. In March 2024, Mars is ascending in the morning sky. It’ll remain faint and in the morning sky for much of this year. But, around the September equinox 2024, Mars will become noticeably brighter as it heads toward its January 2025 opposition.
How to see Mars in the sky: Mars spent February 2024 emerging in the eastern morning twilight. It’ll be shining at magnitude +1.2 in early April.
Note: Mars reaches opposition about every 26 months, or about every two Earth-years. So Mars alternates between appearing bright and faint in our sky. It was bright in late 2022 and early 2023. But by September 2023, Mars faded dramatically in brightness and disappeared in the sunset glare in October 2023. It last passed behind the sun on November 18, 2023.

Sometimes, Mars is faint

Mars was an inconspicuous faint red dot in the sky throughout the early months of 2022. It started becoming brighter in the final months of 2022 and reached opposition on December 8, 2022. It remained bright through early 2023, then started to rapidly fade through the end of the year. Mars reached superior conjunction on November 18, 2023. Now in 2024, it will remain faint until the last few months of the year.

Mars shown at different sizes for closest and farthest opposition and at solar conjunction.
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. Here’s a comparison of the apparent size of Mars when seen at its closest opposition, around its opposition in 2025, and at its most farthest opposition. Also shown is how Mars appears when it’s most distant from the Earth at solar conjunction. Image via Dominic Ford/ 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 shone as a bright red ruby in the evening sky. Ultimately, it reached opposition – when Earth flew 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.

Five images of Mars showing different sizes due to distance from Earth around oppositoin.
When Mars passes opposition, every 2 years, it appears large and bright for only a few weeks. The panel above shows the change in Mars’ apparent size from November 20, 2024, to March 12, 2025. Mars will appear 14.6 arcseconds wide on January 15, 2025. Image via Dominic Ford/ Used with permission.
Circles for Mars in 2024 showing it growing in size during the year.
As Mars races towards its next opposition in January 2025, it’ll grow in apparent size and increase in brightness. Chart via Guy Ottewell’s 2024 Astronomical Calendar. Used with permission.

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 had a good opposition but appeared smaller and dimmer than in 2020, since we were farther away from it. And the January 2025 opposition will find Mars smaller and dimmer than Mars was in 2022. 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.

EarthSky Community Photos

Composite of Mars path across the sky from August 2023 to March 2023.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Paolo Bardelli of Italy made this composite image and said: “On January 16, 2025, Mars will be in opposition, the previous one occurred on December 8, 2022, when it became the brightest object in the night sky. During these periods, tracing the apparent motion of the Red Planet from evening to evening is very interesting, as a real “noose” is created, with a double reversal of its movement. This put ancient sky observers in crisis at the time when the geocentric theory was dominant. Putting things in their place, it turned out to be a simple perspective effect, due to the mutual motion of Earth and Mars. This image is the sum of a sequence taken every useful evening, clouds permitting, from August 12, 2022, to March 22, 2023. The background is the sum of 22 shots of the area of the sky where Mars was located, the rich star field of the constellation del Toro (Taurus). By coincidence, in February 2023 the path of comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) crossed the noose.” Thank you, Paolo!
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 wrote: “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 2 … 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. Other obvious red dots in the sky are reddish-orange Aldebaran and the famous red supergiant Betelgeuse. So, it is fun to compare Mars’ color and intensity of red with that of Aldebaran or Betelgeuse.

And then there is red Antares. Antares is Greek for rival of Ares, meaning rival of Mars. Antares is sometimes said to be the anti-Mars due to its competing red color. For a few months every couple of years Mars is much brighter than Antares. Also, every couple of years Mars passes near Antares, as if taunting the star. Mars moves rapidly through the heavens and Antares is fixed to the starry firmament.

What makes them red?

Surface temperature is what determines the colors of the stars. The hottest stars are blue and 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, Antares and Betelgeuse – are noticeably colorful.

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, Antares 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 is ascending higher in the morning sky each month. Mars will be visible – but dim – before dawn for most of 2024. Then, by the year’s end, it’ll suddenly become noticeable!

Moon and Mars! Fav photos of December 7 occultation

Photos of bright Mars in 2018, from the EarthSky community

Photos of bright Mars in 2020, from the EarthSky community

April 10, 2024
Astronomy Essentials

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