How to See Mars at Its Brightest Since 2003 in July

It's the opportunity of a lifetime -- maybe even several lifetimes. 

There has been a what appears to be a particularly bright star growing closer and more reddish over the past few months. But it’s not a star at all; it’s Mars, and for a few more weeks, the red planet will be at its closest to Earth that it has been since 2003. Between now and September 7, Mars will be the fourth brightest object in the night sky, even beating out Jupiter by 1.8 times, despite being half of Earth’s size.

This summer has marked an incredible opportunity for celestial sightings around the globe, with meteor showers, multiple planets in opposition, and more. And unlike other planetary happenings, this Mars event will be visible from everywhere on Earth.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

When Is the Best Time to Stargaze at Mars?

If you live in the southern hemisphere, you’ll get the best view of Mars, but everyone around the world can partake in its bright beauty. After dusk, or at about 8:25 p.m. Eastern, a gold-orange glow can be visible rising from the east. It will stand out as the second-brightest, ever-so-slightly rosy beacon in the night sky, and set in the west as the sun rises at about 5:15 a.m. Eastern.

You can spot Mars with just the naked eye. But with even a small telescope, more details on the planet’s surface can become visible. Those include the southern white ice cap and the distinct dark regions that indicate rocky plains littered with craters.

In 2003, Mars came the closest to Earth it had been for 60,000 years. And while it won’t be as near this time around, it’s the closest since then, with the nearest point of opposition occurring July 27.

Why Does Mars Look So Much Brighter?

Opposition, when a planet lines up with Earth in between the sun, occurs for Mars every 26 months. Thanks to the red planet’s elliptical orbit, it’s the closest to Earth and the sun at the same time that it possibly can be. That’s what’s in store this summer, and it’s why Mars is so much visibly brighter. That positioning is referred to as a perihelion.

The next time Mars will inch this close won’t be for another 15 to 17 years, and the exact distance varies due to the imperfect shape of its orbit and the gravitational tug from Jupiter. In fact, Mars is the planet with the most varied appearance in Earth’s night sky from year to year. The next time Mars should approach as close as it did in 2003 won’t be for quite a few calendars — not until August 28, 2287.

So get your binoculars ready now, because a chance like this doesn’t come along every summer.