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Mars in 2023: Still bright in April and May

Mars in 2023: Still bright in April and May

Green ecliptic line, Gemini, Castor, and Pollux labeled, with a red arrow showing motion of Mars.
In April 2023, Mars is still in a good position for observing in the evening sky. It’s making a beeline through the background stars, passing through the constellation Gemini the Twins this month. Nearby will be the bright twin stars of Gemini, called Castor and Pollux. Earth passed between Mars and the sun in December 2022. And now Earth is fleeing far ahead of Mars in orbit around the sun. And so Mars is fading in brightness. It’ll go from magnitude +1 to +1.3 this month. Mars will be visible for fewer, and fewer, hours of the night. Mars will set over an hour after midnight at month’s end. Soon, it’ll be visible only in the evening hours. Tonight, April 25, 2023, Mars will shine near a thick waxing crescent moon. Chart via John Jardine Goss/ EarthSky.

Mars sometimes appears bright in our sky and sometimes appears faint. In early 2023, Mars appeared as bright as the sky’s brightest stars. By June 2023, Mars will start to fade dramatically in brightness and appear close to the sunset. By October, November and December, 2023, Mars will be lost from our view … behind the sun.

Mars in 2023

Opposition for Mars last fell on December 8, 2022. That’s when our planet Earth last flew between Mars and the sun. As 2023 began, Mars was still bright. But it’s fading now – and appearing in the sky for fewer hours of the night – as Earth races ahead in our smaller, faster orbit around the sun.
How to see Mars in the sky: In April and May 2023, Mars will be in the western evening sky. Mars has faded in brightness and now blends in with the other 1st-magnitude stars. That is, it still appears as one of the brightest stars in our sky. The moon will sweep past Mars on May 24. Mars will be edging toward the famous Beehive star cluster. See the charts below.
Constellations in April and May 2023: Mars is in front of the constellation Gemini this month. It’ll cross the border between Gemini and Cancer in mid-May.
Note: Mars reaches opposition only about every 26 months, or about every two Earth-years. So Mars alternates between appearing bright and faint in our sky. It was bright in late 2022 and early 2023. But by about June 2023, Mars will start to fade dramatically in brightness. It’ll disappear in the sunset glare around October 2023. It’ll pass behind the sun on November 18. It’ll come back into view, in the east before sunrise, in early 2024.

First part of May: Mars in Gemini

Positions of Mars in May with dots for Venus, Castor and Pollux nearby and along a green ecliptic line.
In May, Mars will slide by Castor and Pollux, the Twin Stars of Gemini. It will shine almost as bright as the Twin Stars but fade to magnitude +1.6 by the end of the month. The red arrow shows Mars’ position along the ecliptic – or path of the sun, moon and planets (shown as a green line on our chart) – for the month of May. The moon will be near Mars on May 23 and 24. Mars will move into Cancer the Crab at mid-month and will be only 1 degree from the Beehive cluster at month’s end. It will set after midnight in May. Chart via John Jardine Goss/ EarthSky.

May 22-23 evenings: Moon will pass Venus, Castor, Pollux and Mars

Waxing crescent moon on two days near white dots for Venus, Mars, Castor and Pollux, all along green ecliptic line.
The waxing crescent moon will float near brilliant Venus shortly after sunset on May 22, 2023. On the following evening, it will lie between Venus and the Twin Stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Even though the Twin Stars are easy to pick out as 2 bright stars very close together, you’ll notice they don’t look exactly alike. Castor shines with a bright white light. And Pollux is a bit brighter than Castor and appears golden in color. Also nearby will be the steady red light of Mars. They’ll be visible until around midnight. Chart via John Jardine Goss/ EarthSky.

May 24 evening: Moon will visit Mars and the Beehive

Waxing crescent moon, near yellow circle showing Beehive Cluster with three white dots for Venus, Castor and Pollux and red dot for Mars
The thick waxing crescent moon will lie near reddish Mars, brilliant Venus and the stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini the Twins on the evening of May 24, 2023. The moon will also be close to the dim Beehive star cluster (M44). Binoculars may help you view some of the 1,000 stars making up the Beehive star cluster. The Beehive is in the constellation of Cancer the Crab. The moon, Mars and the Beehive will set after midnight. Chart via John Jardine Goss/ EarthSky.

View from above the solar system, April and May 2023

Visible planets diagram: Circle with sun at center, planets around, and zodiac names on outer edge.
View larger. | The heliocentric view of the solar system for April 2023. Chart via Guy Ottewell. Used with permission.
Circle with sun at center, planets around, and zodiac names on outer edge.
View larger. | Heliocentric view of solar system, May 2023. Chart via Guy Ottewell.

Sometimes, Mars is faint

Mars was in our evening sky for much of 2021. But, around October, the red planet disappeared from our sky for a time. Its superior conjunction – when it was most directly behind the sun as seen from Earth – was October 8, 2021. Then, some weeks afterwards – as both Earth and Mars moved in their respective orbits around the sun – Mars returned to our sky as a faint red dot in the east before sunrise. To be sure, it remained inconspicuous throughout the early months of 2022.

Five images of Mars showing apparent size difference near opposition.
The geometry of Mars’ orbit is such that it spends much longer periods of time at large distances from the Earth than it does close to us, which provides added incentive to observe it in the weeks around opposition. When it passes opposition, every 2 years, Mars appears large and bright for only a few weeks. The panel above shows the month-by-month change in Mars’ apparent size from October 13, 2022, to February 2, 2023. Mars appeared 17 arcseconds wide on December 8, 2022. It’ll be 5.4 arcseconds on May 1, 2023. Image via Dominic Ford/ Used with permission.

Sometimes, Mars is bright

Mars steadily brightened in the first half of 2022, first as a morning object. But later, during the second half of 2022, Mars shone as a bright red ruby in the evening sky. Ultimately, it reached opposition – when Earth flew between Mars and the sun – on December 8, 2022.

Indeed, Mars’ dramatic swings in brightness (and its red color) are why the early stargazers named Mars for their God of War.

Sometimes the war god rests. And sometimes he grows fierce! In fact, these changes are part of the reason Mars is so fascinating to watch in the night sky.

Want to follow Mars? Bookmark EarthSky’s monthly night sky guide.

Mars isn’t very big

To understand why Mars varies so much in brightness in Earth’s sky, first realize that Mars isn’t a very big world. Indeed, it’s only 4,219 miles (6,790 km) in diameter, making it only slightly more than half Earth’s size (7,922 miles or 12,750 km in diameter).

On the other hand, consider Mars in contrast to Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Jupiter is 86,881 miles (140,000 km) in diameter. As an illustration, more than 20 planets the size of Mars could be lined up side by side in front of Jupiter. Basically, Jupiter always looks bright, because it’s so big.

Not so for little Mars, however. Rather, its extremes in brightness have to do with its nearness (or lack of nearness) to Earth.

Space photos of Earth and Mars side by side, on black background, with Earth much bigger.
Mars isn’t very big, so its brightness – when it is bright – isn’t due to its bigness, as is true of Jupiter. Mars’ brightness, or lack of brightness, is all about how close we are to the Red Planet. It’s all about where Earth and Mars are, relative to each other, in their respective orbits around the sun. Image via NASA.

Future Martian oppositions

So, when is the next opposition of Mars? The next time Mars will appear at its brightest for that two-year period in our sky? You guessed it. In January 2025! Check out the chart on this page that lists all oppositions of Mars from 1995 to 2037.

Earth's and Mars' orbits with Mars in different sizes at different points around its orbit.
There’s a 15-year cycle of Mars, whereby the Red Planet is brighter and fainter at opposition. In July 2018, we were at the peak of the 2-year cycle – and the peak of the 15-year cycle – and Mars was very, very bright! In 2020, we were also at the peak of the 2-year cycle; however, Earth and Mars were farther apart at Mars’ opposition than they were in 2018. Still, 2020’s opposition of Mars was excellent. So, in December 2022, Mars had a good opposition but appeared smaller and dimmer than in 2020, since we were farther away from it. Diagram by Roy L. Bishop. Copyright Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Used with permission. Visit the RASC eStore to purchase the Observer’s Handbook, a necessary tool for all skywatchers.
Starry sky with Orion, Taurus, Mars, Pleiades over rocky horizon.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Miguel Ventura in Fafe, Portugal, captured this image on August 28, 2022, and wrote: “Every now and then and in addition to its natural beauty, the night sky and the whims of the universe offer us moments like this. With some planning and luck in the mix (truce from the clouds) I was able to photograph this magnificent alignment. We can see the Pleiades and the constellation of Taurus with the planet Mars between these 2 … below near the horizon the imposing constellation of Orion appears, announcing the autumn sky.” Thank you, Miguel!

Seeing red

Mars appears as a reddish light in the sky and, therefore, is often called the Red Planet. Other obvious red dots in the sky are reddish-orange Aldebaran and the famous red supergiant Betelgeuse. So, it is fun to compare Mars’ color and intensity of red with that of Aldebaran or Betelgeuse.

Surface temperature is what determines the colors of the stars. The hottest stars are blue and the coolest stars are red. In fact, from hottest to coolest, the colors of stars range from blue, white, yellow, orange and red. And while the colors of stars might be hard to detect, some stars – like Aldebaran and Betelgeuse – are noticeably colorful.

Iron oxide

On the other hand, Mars appears red for a different reason. It’s red because of iron oxide in the dust that covers this desert world. Iron oxide gives rust and blood its red color. Rovers on Mars sampled the Martian dust and determined it contains three colors: reds, browns and oranges. So those three colors are what you may see when you gaze upon Mars.

Do you see red when you look at Mars, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse? Are they the same color? Do you see any other colors of stars?

Orange ball with well-defined dark marks and white spot at the north pole.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nancy Ricigliano captured Mars from Long Island, New York, on October 6, 2020, when it was closest to Earth. Thank you, Nancy. See more photos of Mars at its closest in 2020.

Bottom line: Mars is still bright, but it’s destined to fade in brightness and appear for fewer hours of the night … See Mars while you can! Charts for April and May 2023 here.

Moon and Mars! Fav photos of December 7 occultation

Photos of bright Mars in 2018, from the EarthSky community

Photos of bright Mars in 2020, from the EarthSky community


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