Once every two years Mars’ orbit brings it close to Earth allowing it to shine its biggest and brightest to the naked eye and telescope – and on the evening of March 5 the Red Planet will reach its closest approach to Earth for 2012. Only 62.6 million miles will separate our two worlds as it just passes official opposition – when Mars is directly opposite the Sun from us only two days before on March 3.
Step outside on any clear night- about a half hour after local sunset and look towards the east. Mars is easy to spot as yellowish-orange light, shining brighter than anything else in that part of the night sky, except for the Moon. By the way, If you are having problems positively identifying Mars, then you will find the full moon conveniently sitting next to it on March 7 – both rising in the east around sunset. By local midnight you will find Mars shining high in the south.
The entire month of March, until end of April is your best bet in terms of observing the Red Planet through a telescope as the planetary disk will be big enough under high magnification to catch surface details on it. – after which you will have to wait until 2014 to get a better, bigger view.
While this opposition wont be the most favorable because of the smaller apparent size of Mars due to its farther distance, through a small telescope, the dark surface markings and north polar ice cap should be visible. Larger telescopes (at least 6 inches) using high powers of 200x magnification might help reveal the occasional white equatorial cloud bands and moving dust storms.
While the best way to explore Mars in your backyard is through a telescope, the unaided eye can reveal its true colors. Its entire surface today is covered in a fine dust that is rich in iron oxide, meaning Mars is red and rusting.
Even from 62.6 million miles away we can see the color of the planet, which is half Earth’s size, as the light from the Sun reflects off the Martian deserts. Now how cool is that?
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.