It’s time to get serious about Mars. The Sun’s fourth planet is moving into a spectacular phase, getting brighter and rising earlier by the night. It’ll shine at its absolute best in early December.
But you don’t have to wait that long to appreciate it. Right now, Mars climbs into view by midnight, low in the east, and stands high in the sky at first light. It looks like a bright orange star. The fainter true star Aldebaran, which is also orange, is close by.
Only five nighttime objects visible in northern skies outshine Mars: the Moon, two planets, and two stars. But Earth is catching up to Mars in our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. We’ll overtake the Red Planet in early December. As Mars draws closer, it’ll also get much brighter. By the time of closest approach, near a point called opposition, it’ll shine more than four times brighter than it does now. For a while, only the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter will outdo it.
Mars reaches opposition every couple of years. But no two oppositions are just alike. Mars’s orbit is more lopsided than Earth’s is, so the planet’s distance at opposition varies by tens of millions of miles. This will be a close one, so Mars will put on a great show.
And as Mars brightens, you’ll have more time to enjoy it — it rises a little earlier each night. At opposition, it’ll rise at sunset and be in view all night. So enjoy Mars as it shines brilliantly through autumn and well into winter.
Script by Damond Benningfield