Mars is closest to Earth since 2005 and will appear to be a bright star in the evening sky during December and January. Mars will be at opposition to Earth on December 24. This means it will be directly opposite from the sun, with Earth in the middle on Christmas Eve. Since it is opposite the sun, the light hitting the planet will all be reflected toward Earth increasing its magnitude to -1.6. It will actually outshine Sirius, the brightest star.

Mars will rise in the east as the sun sets in the west with visibility occurring throughout the night. Mars will set in the west as the sun rises in the east. In 2003, Mars opposition was the closest to Earth in almost 60,000 years. Mars is moving in a retrograde path (moving westward) through the stars of Gemini and will cross over into Taurus on Dec. 30 (see graphic below). It came closest to the Earth on the night of Dec. 18 (around 6:46 p.m. EST) and six days later will be in opposition. Mars will then be 54,783,381 miles from Earth.

Mars’ orbit is more elliptical than Earth’s, so the difference between perihelion and aphelion is greater. Over the past centuries, Mars’ orbit has been getting more and more elongated, carrying the planet even nearer to the sun at perihelion and even farther away at aphelion. So future perihelic oppositions will bring Earth and Mars even closer. The opposition observed in 2003 was a modern record and will stand until August 28, 2287. Now is a good time to view Mars. Even an inexpensive telescope should provide a nice view. At magnifications of 120x, detail in the polar caps can be seen.

Looking east in mid-evening