Mars, our tiny red neighbor. It can be one of the most fascinating yet one of the most difficult planets to find, despite how close we might be to it.
Space is very large and there are many, many contributing factors to its visibility that fluctuate depending on what time of year it is and any obstacles that might be in the way.
Mars only gets close enough to Earth to be visible to us once every 780 days, which is about 2 years and 2 months. For those of you who might have caught Jupiter or Saturn through your telescope, Mars might still seem remarkably small, as it is a much smaller planet.
However, Mars has a very unique topography and we would certainly recommend that you try and seek it out, as you can get a glimpse of its amazing trademark red surface, which has very distinct regions, much like Earth.
If you do spy Mars, you’ll be able to make out a remarkable amount of details on its surface, including dust storms, local fogs and cloud banks. Once you have it in your sights, you won’t want to let go!
However, to see Mars you’re going to need the proper equipment. But what lenses and eyepieces are best to spy on our favorite red friend? What time of year is best for you to achieve the clearest view?
Well, night sky spotters the world over need not worry about these questions anymore, as we’ve got an in-depth guide on how to see Mars through a telescope.
We’re going to discuss how Mars’ relationship with the Earth changes, what position it will be in during 2021 and what the best telescopes and filters are to make this planet reveal itself fully. We’re also going to give you a brief glossary on the unique phenomena you can expect to see on Mars’ surface.
The 2021 Mars Opposition
Mars is one of the most common features in the night sky, although it is often so distant that you can’t pick it up, even with the most powerful backyard telescope. It is also lost to sight for a few weeks as it becomes eclipsed by the sun’s glare.
The furthest distance that Mars gets from Earth is around 225 million kilometers, with a magnitude of +1.8 with a disk of around 3.5-inches, making it roughly the same size as Uranus, which is the second furthest planet from the sun in our solar system.
But during their relative orbits, there are points where Earth and the Sun come into very close contact, as these orbits deviate slightly in their course and no one orbit is the same. When Mars appears in our night sky opposite the sun, then this is called The Opposition.
The 4 to 6 weeks on either side of this opposition is when Mars is at its most visible from Earth, and the best time for you to get out your telescope to see it from your back garden. The last great opposition was during July 2018 and it won’t get as close to Earth again until 2035.
The last time that Mars was closest to the Earth was on October 6 in 2020, when it was only 62.5 million kilometers away.
However, this year Mars will become visible once again and it positions itself 5-degrees north of the ecliptic in the constellation Pisces, perfect for spying if you're in both northern and southern hemispheres.
How You Can Find Mars At Night
Mars is quite easy to see in the night sky, burning bright in the constellation Pisces, rising in the east after sunset a little bit earlier each subsequent night for the rest of the year. However, when its brightness and magnitude increase then that's when visibility is at its highest.
When Mars gets to a brightness magnitude of -2.6 then it becomes even brighter than Jupiter, shining with an ochre-colored hue that makes it shine stronger than a lot of the surrounding stars.
When it reaches opposition, Mars expands to around 22.6-inches in diameter on a telescope, although this is still dwarfed by the massive ellipses of planets like Jupiter that reach 50-inches during its opposition.
You can also see Mars without the need for a telescope, its reddish tinge making it stand out from a lot of the other stars that surround it. You have probably already seen it, but never known that it was Mars!
The red color is because of the iron-oxide in the sands that cover its surface, which is what caused astronomers who first saw it to name it after the Roman god of war. You can confirm the identity of Mars by the movement of Mars to the West, growing stationary for a while around August, before moving east for the rest of the year.
As Mars reaches its opposition, you can also track its brightness as the year goes on. During November of this year, Mars will become exceedingly bright at a magnitude of -2.1, fading to -1.1 at the end of November.
Telescopes And Filters To See Mars
Using binoculars might make Mars seem slightly brighter and you should be able to spot the circularity of its disk. However, for picking out the intricate details of its surface, you’ll certainly be needing to use a telescope.
For a large and detailed image of the surface of Mars, you’ll need a telescope with a large focal length and an impressive aperture, both of which should set you back a bit in terms of price. However, these might be large pieces of equipment, so we’d recommend finding a model that you are comfortable transporting.
Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes are great for capturing clear images of planets, compacting long focal lengths into smaller optical tubes, featuring larger apertures of 6-, 8- and 9.25-inches, giving you a higher resolution and intricate details in clear skies.
What You Can See On Mars
Once you’ve got the right telescope, you should be able to see quite a bit from the Martian surface, although it will be harder to see than the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn with their larger size and grandiose ring systems.
Here is a brief list of some things you can expect to see on Mars:
- The polar caps
- Lighter red - orange regions covered with rust-colored dust - in the early days of planetary observation, these were thought to be landmasses.
- Dark regions - these are areas of exposed volcanic rock.
- Dust storms - these gather in the atmosphere and will reveal and obscure details on the surface from time to time.
You might be mistaken for thinking that these features are changing in size, but they don’t. This is just because storms partially obscure them, making it seem like they’re changing.
Our Final Say
Despite being our closest neighbor, Mars is one of the more challenging planets to spot from the ground.
But using the right brand of telescope and catching it during the right time of year, you should be able to see some of the finer details of this red planet’s surface.