Mars, the so-called “Red Planet,” is at its brightest for the year right now, and is also in prime viewing position.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in our Solar System, and our second nearest neighbor (after Venus). It shines like a star and often appears yellow-orange or reddish to the naked eye. This red color is created by dust in the planet’s atmosphere. As Mars orbits the Sun, its brilliance varies more than any other planet in the night sky. It occasionally surpasses Jupiter as the third brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon and Venus.
The planet is now shining at its greatest brilliancy for 2012, at magnitude -1.3, just a trifle dimmer than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. On March 5, around midnight Eastern time, it reached its closest point to Earth for the year, at a distance of 62.6 million miles. Since Mars can come as close to Earth as 34.6 million miles, this year is not a particularly close encounter.
In addition, Mars arrived at opposition to the Sun on March 3, and is currently rising at sunset, peaking high in the south at midnight, and setting at sunup. A planet is at opposition when it sits 180° from the Sun in relationship to the Earth. This is the best time to view a planet, because it is visible throughout the night.
In the weeks to come, Mars will remain a fixture in the evening sky, but also will be receding from Earth, and consequently getting progressively fainter. By year’s end, it will be found in the constellation of Capricornus, having moved out to a distance of 207 million miles from Earth and shining just 1/10 as bright as it is now.