Set the alarm on your phone, mark your calendar and post a note on your refrigerator. Mars is about to be at its brightest and best for this two-year period. Earth flies between the sun and Mars on March 3, 2012. Mars is closest to Earth two days later on March 5, 2012. Mars is near the full moon on the night of March 7, 2012. Throughout March 2012, as Venus and Jupiter continue to dazzle us in the western sky, Mars – the world most like Earth in our solar system – appears in the east at nightfall.
Don’t miss this great opportunity to see the Red Planet shining like a brilliant red beacon in our night sky! To see it, all you have to do is step outside. It’ll be hard to miss Mars because it’s the fourth-brightest star-like object to light up the night at this time, after the planets Venus and Jupiter, and the star Sirius.
At opposition, Mars lies opposite the sun in Earth’s sky. The sun, Earth and Mars lie along a line in space, as viewed from above. Look for Mars throughout March 2012. It rises in the east around the time of sunset, climbs highest in the sky around midnight and sets in the west around sunrise.
Mars on March 3, 2012. Mars is at its best about every two Earth years, whenever Earth flies between this planet and the sun. That happens on March 3, 2012 at 20 UTC (2 p.m. CST). Earth orbits closer to the sun than Mars does, and we move in orbit more swiftly in orbit than Mars. Our world laps Mars on the average every 780 Earth days – a little over every two years. When Earth goes between the sun and Mars, placing Mars opposite the sun in our sky, astronomers call it an opposition of Mars.
So Earth, in its smaller orbit, swings between Mars and the sun every other year, at progressively later dates. Earth will next lap Mars in April 2014. After that, Earth will lap Mars in May 2016. To us Mars fans, that seems like a long time to wait for the next good time to see Mars! That’s why every Martian opposition is very exciting.
March on March 5, 2012. You would think Mars is closest to Earth when we go between Mars and the sun on March 3. Not so, because the orbits of Earth and Mars are not precisely circular, and the orbits aren’t aligned on the same exact plane. If you want to see Mars at its absolute closest, look on March 5. At its closest, Mars lodges a little over 100 million kilometers (62 million miles) away. In 2013, however, when Mars will lie on the far side of the sun from Earth, this planet will be some 3.6 times farther away and not even one-ninth as bright.
Mars and the moon on March 7, 2012. We pinpoint that night – the evening of March 7, 2012 through the morning of March 8, 2012 – because that is when Mars and the moon will be closest. But they will also be close for many nights before and after that date. And if you’re not sure you’ve identified Mars correctly, the nights around March 7 are for you.
Every opposition of Mars is special. As a general rule, Mars reaches opposition every other year, but oppositions of Mars are all slightly different. Of course – because Nature rarely repeats herself exactly. Extra-distant and extra-close Martian oppositions recur in a cycle lasting 15 to 17 years. Extra-close oppositions happen when we go between Mars and the sun around the time Mars is closest to the sun. Makes sense, right? Mars is closest to the sun. We go between the sun and Mars. So Mars is closest to us. The last extra-close opposition of Mars took place on August 28, 2003, and the next one will be on July 27, 2018.
So how about 2012? This opposition of Mars is one of the least close. Mars was farthest from the sun on February 15, 2012. That means that, although Mars is now brighter and closer than it’s been for two years – and brighter and closer than it will be again until 2014 – it’s not as bright and close as it can sometimes be.
How to see Mars in 2012. So this isn’t the best possible opposition of Mars, but it’s still a grand time to see the red planet. Mars is out all night long in March 2012. It looks like a bright reddish star, although it shines with a steadier light than the twinkling stars. On these March 2012 evenings, look for Mars in the eastern sky at nightfall – highest in the sky around midnight – and in the west as morning dawn starts to light the sky.
At the 2012 opposition on March 3, Mars is front of the constellation Leo the Lion. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, is to the upper right of Mars when they are in the east in the evening hours. Regulus won’t come close to matching the red planet Mars in brightness, even though Regulus ranks as one of the brightest stars in our sky. Be sure to notice the contrasting colors of Mars and Regulus. Mars is reddish, while Regulus is blue-white.
After March 2012, Mars will continue to be visible in our sky for the remainder of this year, getting fainter and farther away all the while. In April, it will be up in the east when the sun sets. Throughout Northern Hemisphere summer 2012, it’ll adorn our evening sky. By Northern Hemisphere autumn 2012, Mars will be rather inconspicuous, albeit still visible in our evening sky, shifting ever further southwestward. By the end of 2012, Mars will be exceedingly faint (but still visible to the eye), and very inconspicuous, low in the southwest after sunset.
Bottom line: The Red Planet Mars is at its best in the March 2012 night sky. Earth passes between the sun and Mars on March 3 (the Martian opposition), and Mars is closest on March 5. Mars is near the March full moon on the night of March 7. This is a great time to see Mars, in short. By the way, the planets directly about-face of Mars at nightfall are the even brighter planets Jupiter and Venus. But Jupiter and Venus set during the evening while Mars shines all night long!earth days, brightest star, the red planet Mars <BR/>