This morning bright Jupiter shines from about one-third of the way up in the southern sky. It is to the right of Saturn. Both planets are retrograding – an illusion that occurs each year as our faster moving planet approaches and moves between the planets and the sun (opposition). Earth passes between both planets and the sun during July.
After opposition, the Jupiter and Saturn continue to retrograde. When they resume their eastward motion during September. Jupiter passes Saturn on December 21, 2020, for what is known as a Great Conjunction. Such events occur every 20 years.
Farther east, Mars shines among the stars of Aquarius, in the southeast. It is marching eastward among the stars. The Red Planet is over 40° from Jupiter. Mars is at opposition on October 13, 2020. As our planet approaches Mars, the planet increases in brightness.
Mars reaches opposition on October 13, 2020, among the dim stars of southeastern Pisces. At opposition, Mars is biggest and brightest. Unlike some Internet memes, it is not as big as the moon. It shines as a bright star in the sky all night long.
Mars has captured our attention. It’s reddish appearance in the sky has cast it as a warrior in several cultures. After the inventions of larger telescopes, Mars brought the attention of many observers. Public announcements of possible civilizations there likely spurred the growth of science fiction writing and storytelling.
While Mars is close to Earth, it appears small even through a telescope. Through a telescope’s eyepiece, it appears as a red-ochre globe. A polar cap and some darker equatorial markings might be visible. At times, Mars surface cannot be seen when dust storms engulf the planet. For those with a telescope, Sky & Telescope’s Mars profiler shows what is visible on the surface on any date and time.
The Mars opposition occurs at the end of a span of 91 days, with the three Bright Outer Planets (Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars) passing their oppositions. Jupiter and Saturn are at their oppositions during a span of 6 days in July 2020.
Mars’ opposition occurs 72 days after it passes its orbital point closest to the sun (August 2, 2020), known as a planet’s perihelion, while the previous opposition occurred 49 days before perihelion (September 15, 2018). The July 27, 2018, event was called a “perihelic” opposition.
Slideshow of images for Mars Opposition 2020
The accompanying charts show two perspectives of the planet’s motion from July 21, 2020, to January 5, 2021. The first chart shows the apparent motions of Mars as seen against the starry background in southeastern Pisces. The second chart shows the view of a section of Earth’s orbital path and Mars’ orbit as viewed from above the solar system.
In the notes in this article, the “m” numbers are measures of the planets’ and stars’ brightness. The lower the number, the brighter the celestial object. The sun has the lowest value (−26.5) on this scale. Afterall it is so bright it creates daytime on our planet and shines on the moon and other planets in its system. The planets’ brightness changes as their distances from Earth vary.
Each full digit numeric change on the magnitude scale equals a change of 2.5 times (2.512x). From the beginning of the sequence to its brightest, Mars brightness increases 25 times, a dramatic, but easily observed change of brightness. As we move away from Mars in start the new year, the planet’s brightness decreases about ten times from its brightest light. So, like an excellent golf score, the lower the number the brighter the “star.”
All Planets in Morning Sky
As the sequence opens, five naked eye planets are in the morning sky, along with Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. At about 40 minutes before sunrise, the bright planets span nearly 168° of ecliptic longitude, stretching from horizon to horizon. Mercury (m = 0.4), a day before its greatest elongation, is quite low in the east-northeast. Use a binocular and find a clear horizon. Brilliant Venus (m = −4.6) is about 20° up in the east, to the lower left of Aldebaran. Mars (m = −0.9) is over 45° up in the south-southeast. Farther westward along the ecliptic, Saturn (m = 0.1) is about 10° up in the southwest. Bright Jupiter is 6.4° to Saturn’s lower right. Because Mercury is low in the sky, start looking for Jupiter about an hour before sunrise. Work your way eastward across the sky to find Mercury with a binocular 10-20 minutes later. I’ve seen Jupiter just a few degrees above the horizon without optical assistance. It might be possible to see all of them in the sky together.
Mars at Opposition
Here’s what to look for:
July 21, 2020: This is the first day displayed on the charts. See the text above for a description of the menagerie of morning planets. Bright Mars (m = −0.9) is moving eastward against the starry background. As midnight approaches, the Red Planet is 5° up in the east.
August 2: Mars (m = −1.1) is at perihelion, 1.38 AU from the sun, its closest point to the sun in its orbit. As midnight approaches, it is 10° up in the east.
August 4: Mars (m = −1.2) passes 0.4° to the upper left of a star with the catalog name 89 Piscium (89 Psc, m = 5.1). The star is dim. Use a binocular to see Mars with the starfield.
August 8: As midnight approaches the moon (19.5 days past the New phase, 73% illuminated) is 2.0° to the lower right of Mars (m = −1.3) that is about 13° in altitude in the east.
August 22: Mars (m = −1.6) passes 0.5° to the upper left of Nu Piscium (ν Psc, m = 4.4). Four hours after sunset, Mars is nearly 18° in altitude in the east.
September 5: Four hours after sunset, the moon (18.1d, 86%) – over 20° up in the east – is 0.7° below Mars (m = −1.9).
September 9: Mars (m = −2.0) begins to retrograde; four hours after sunset, it is nearly 25° up in the east-southeast. See the first chart above Retrograde motion is an illusion. To early astronomers, this was the cosmological problem of the time. Those who thought Earth was at the center of all motion used a series of circles needed to get the planets to move westward compared to the starry background. For observers who thought all the planets revolved around the sun, Mars seems to move backwards when our faster moving planet catches, overtakes, and moves past the Red Planet. Mars and all objects in the solar system beyond it seem to back up for a period of time, then resume their eastward motion compared to the starry background as we move past. This is more obvious for the bright planets, especially Mars. The issue of Earth’s place in the solar system was not finalized until after the invention of the telescope and precision instruments were developed to measure our planet’s revolution around the sun.
For those with further interest, the variable star Mira (ο Cet) is predicted to reach its brightness. This paragraph describes more Mira’s brightness prediction and its location to Mars Predicted dates for the brightest phase range from mid-September to late in the month. The brightest magnitude is uncertain, ranging from 2.0 to 4.0. On September 15, Mira is about 12° to the lower left of Mars. For the latest observations of Mira’s brightness, check with the American Association of Variable Star Observers (https://www.aavso.org/).
October 2: Three hours after sunset, Mars (m = −2.5) is 24° up in the east-southeast. The bright gibbous moon (15.7d, 98%) is 1.3° to the lower right of the planet.
October 6: Earth and Mars (m = −2.6) are at their closest. The planet passes 0.4° to the lower right of Mu Piscium (μ Psc, m = 4.8). Use a binocular to see the dimmer star with Mars. Three hours after sunset, the Red Planet is over 25° in altitude in the east-southeast.
October 13: Earth is between Mars and the sun. When the sun sets, Mars is rising in the eastern sky. Around midnight (about 1 a.m. during Daylight Saving Time), Mars is in the south. Mars sets in the western sky at sunrise. Mars and sun are opposite in the sky. Mars is at opposition, 1.43 AU from the sun and 0.419 AU from Earth. Three hours after sunset, the planet is over 30° up in the east-southeast.
October 23: Mars (m = −2.4) passes 0.6° to the lower right of 80 Piscium (80 Psc, m = 5.5). Use a binocular to see the star with Mars. Two hours after sunset, Mars is over 25° in altitude in the east-southeast.
October 29: Two hours after sunset, the bright moon (13.2d, 98%) is nearly 26° up in the east-southeast. Mars (m = −2.2) is 4.8° to the upper right of the gibbous moon.
November 13: Mars’ (m = −1.7) retrograde ends. Mars begins to move eastward compared to the starry background. Two hours after sunset, the planet is nearly 40° up in the southeast.
November 25: At the end of evening twilight, Mars (m = −1.3) is over 40° in altitude in the southeast. The moon (10.8d, 84%) is 5.1° to the lower left of Mars. (The end of twilight occurs about 100 minutes after sunset.)
December 4: Mars (m = −1.0) passes 1.0° below Epsilon Piscium (ε Psc, m = 4.2). Use a binocular to track Mars compared to the dimmer starry background. At the end of evening twilight, Mars is over 45° in altitude in the southeast.
December 12: Mars (m = −0.7) passes 0.6° above Zeta Piscium (ζ Psc, m = 5.2). Another dim star. You’ll likely need a binocular to see the star. At the end of evening twilight, find the Red Planet 50° up in the southeast.
December 21: Forty-five minutes after sunset, Mars (m = −0.5) is nearly 48° up in the southeast. The half-full moon (7.3d, 50%), over 40° up in the south-southeast, is about 24° to the lower right of Mars. This is the evening of the once-every-generation Great Conjunction of Jupiter (m = −2.0) and Saturn (m = 0.6). The conjunction is about 14° in altitude above the southwest horizon. Mar and Jupiter are nearly 83° apart.
December 23: At the end of evening twilight, Mars is 55° up in the south-southeast. The moon (9.3d, 69%) is 5.6° to the lower left of Mars.
December 31: Mars (m = −0.2) passes 1.0° to the lower left of Pi Piscium (π Psc, m = 5.5). A binocular is needed to see the dim star and the planet together. At the end of evening twilight, Mars is nearly 60° in altitude in the south-southeast.
January 5, 2021: This is the last day displayed on the charts. At the end of evening twilight, Mars (m = −0.1) is 60° in altitude in the south-southeast.
The sequence ends with Jupiter and Saturn approaching their solar conjunctions. The giant planetary pair is 15 days past the December 21, 2020, Great conjunction. Jupiter is 1.7° east of Saturn. During mid-twilight, Jupiter is about 6° up in the southwest. Along with Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn are less than 20° east of the sun. Mars is over 85° of ecliptic longitude from Jupiter. In the morning sky, Venus is about 5° up in the southeast during morning twilight. While the sun is between them, Venus is over 37° in ecliptic longitude from Jupiter.
What’s Next for Mars
Mars heads toward brighter starfields during 2021. During March, it passes the Pleiades and the Hyades, and moves between the Bull’s horns in mid-April. Mars strolls through the Beehive Cluster in late June, although the pair is low in the west-northwest during evening twilight. During mid-July, Venus passes Mars in the western evening sky. Later in the month, Mars passes Regulus with Venus higher in the sky, although the Mars – Regulus pair is very low in the sky during mid-twilight. Then, Mars makes a slow slide into evening twilight. It reaches its solar conjunction on October 7, 2021. The next opposition is December 7, 2022. Mars is farther away, 0.549 AU. This is followed by the January 15, 2025, opposition, when the Martian distance increases to 0.734 AU.
The three bright outer planets — Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — appear at opposition during a span of 79 days during 2018. The opposition for bright Jupiter occurs on May 8, among the stars of Libra. Saturn’s opposition is above the Teapot stars of Sagittarius on June 27. The final opposition of bright planets is Mars on July 27.
This article summarizes the events that are explained in these articles:
Jupiter retrogrades among the stars of Libra including a triple conjunction with Libra; it is at opposition on Mary 8.
Saturn retrogrades above the stars of the Teapot. Notice that the planet has a triple conjunction with Kaus Borealis, the star at the top of the lid.
With opposition on July 27, Mars completes a perihelic opposition on July 27, 2018.
Figure 2: A montage of outer planets’ retrograde motions. (Click an image to see the diagram close up and the caption.)
The first event of the “Tri-planet opposition” is the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter on January 7, 2018. Mars appears to move more rapidly eastward than either Jupiter or Saturn. The Red Planet passes about 0.3 degree from Jupiter on this morning. They are close the previous morning (January 6), only slightly farther apart. Jupiter is 20 times brighter than Mars at this conjunction (Figure 3). After this pairing, Mars continues its eastward motion heading toward Saturn.
Mars reaches slow-moving Saturn on April 2, 85 days after its Jupiter conjunction (Figure 4). The pair is separated by about 1 degree. Mars is only about 25% brighter than Saturn at this point, but rapidly grows in brightness during the next three months as our planet begins to catch the Red Planet. As Mars moves away from Saturn, Jupiter is approaching its opposition.
Opposition 1: Jupiter, May 8
Jupiter reaches opposition on May 8, 2018, near Libra’s bright star, Zubenelgenubi . The chart above (Figure 5) shows the three planets hours before the precise opposition time. Jupiter is in the southwest and Mars is in the southeast. The three bright planets are scattered across the southern sky. Saturn is 50 degrees to the left of Jupiter and Mars is 18 degrees farther to the left (east).
Jupiter starts retrograding on March 8 and continues until July 17.
Opposition 2: Saturn, June 27
Saturn reaches opposition on June 27, coincidentally the night of the June full moon. Saturn starts retrograding on April 17 and concludes September 6 (Figure 6). As with the previous diagram, Jupiter is in the southwest; Mars is in the southeast.
On this night Saturn is 52 degrees from Jupiter; Mars is 34 degrees to the lower left of Saturn. Compared to the previous chart, Jupiter’s noticeably moved westward past Zubenelgenubi; Saturn is close to the “lid” star in the Teapot and it continues to slowly retrograde above the Teapot stars. Mars is farther to the east and begins its retrograde just two days before the date of the diagram.
During the next 3 weeks watch Saturn inch closer to the lid star in the top of Tea Pot. The Ringed Planet passes within 3 degrees on June 17. (Saturn passes this star, Kaus Borealis, three times — a triple conjunction during this apparition: February 18, June 17 and November 18.)
Opposition 3: Mars, July 27
Mars reaches its opposition on July 27, just 79 days after Jupiter reached opposition. It is now 15 times brighter than Saturn and nearly twice as bright as Jupiter. Jupiter is still retrograding near Zubenelgenubi. Saturn continues to retrograde away from the lid star of the Teapot (Figure 7). Mars retrogrades until August 27. On the Mars retrograde loop in Figure 2 that this planet ends its retrograde near four stars, known as the “Dog Kingdom.” The stars (Omega Sagittarii, 59 Sagittarii, 60 Sagittarii, and 62 Sagittarii) resemble a small kite or diamond. See more about this asterism at the end of this article.
Mars is near its closest point to the sun, perihelion, when it reaches that point on September 15th. Such oppositions are called “perihelic oppostions.”
Saturn is 31 degrees to the right (west) of Mars. Jupiter is 50 degrees beyond Saturn.
Future Tri-Planet Oppositions
(This section revised, April 16, 2018)
The trio of bright outer planets continue to reach opposition about every two years for the near future. When Jupiter and Saturn have a conjunction in 2020, the duration between the three planets’ oppositions increases to 91 days, then it begins to lengthen as noted here:
2022 — Saturn, August 14; Jupiter, September 26; Mars, December 8; 116 days
2024/2025 — Saturn, September 8; Jupiter, December 7; Mars, January 6; 130 days
2026/2027 — Saturn, October 4; Jupiter, February 11; Mars, February 19; 138 days
For the next decade the span between a tri-planet opposition interval lengthens. During 2030 and 2031, the time span of the tri-planet oppositions is 200 days, when it spans from November 27, 2030 to June 15, 2031. It begins to shorten again. By 2040, the time interval shortens again to 86 days. Jupiter and Saturn have another conjunction in 2040 (November 5), after the three planets reach their oppositions.
The main difference between the 2018 interval and the 2040 interval is that Mars is at its perihelic opposition in 2020. In 2040, it is 2 years from its aphelic opposition (February 6, 2042) when it is farthest from the earth and Sun. So it will not appear as large through a telescope or appear as bright as it does at its 2018 opposition.
During the 2018 tri-planet opposition time and then again in 2020, look for these three bright outer planets in our skies.