Now's a Great Time to See Mars in the Night Sky. Here's What to Look For.
The red planet is shining bright in late 2020. Here's why you should get out and see it.
Of all the planets in our solar system, Mars holds a special place in our collective imagination. It has inspired stories about space travel, aliens (the best being Marvin the Martian, obviously), and planetary exploration on a scale that isn't matched anywhere else. (That last one is partly logistical. Still!)
That's true even though the vast majority of the time, both Venus and Jupiter are brighter than Mars from our vantage point. Saturn and Mercury are also occasionally brighter than the red planet. However, right now, Mars is brighter than any visible star. It's even brighter than Jupiter through October 30, per Time and Date's brightness visualization.
The last time Mars was this bright was back in 2018. At that time, Mars was at perihelic opposition, its brightest position since 2003. It's not going to get quite that dazzling in 2020, but it's starting to get as radiant as you'll see it for a couple of years.
The red planet spent almost all of 2019 looking a bit faint, but it's blazing red again. And the color isn't just a reference to photos of the planet's surface, it's glowing a beautiful shade of red. You'll find it sitting in the east rising around 9:30pm as of this writing. By the end of September, its rising time will be right around 8pm, according to In the Sky's planet rising and setting times.
Mars is unique in how much it fades and brightens between years. That's partly due to the planet's small size. When it's at the far side of the solar system from Earth, it gets pretty dim. But it can also be relatively close. Per Time and Date, Mars is just over 70 million miles from Earth on September 9. The next closest planet is Venus at 136 million miles. The sun at 151 million miles, and Mercury at 193 million miles. While Venus is almost twice as far away, Mars is still getting closer. In early October, Mars will be within about 62 million miles of our planet.
As was the case in 2018 -- though it won't be quite as spectacular -- we're headed for opposition, when Earth passes between the sun and Mars. It'll happen on October 13. That will be a great night to go out and look at the fiery god of war, but with clear skies, there isn't a bad time to spot it right now. The planet is already quite bright, and it's going to look beautiful for the remainder of 2020.