An illustration showing Mars south above the horizon, near twelve o’clock in the night sky.

Mars Close Approach to Earth

See Mars in the Night Sky!

Simply go outside and look up and, depending on your local weather and lighting conditions, you should be able to see Mars.

Mars Close Approach was Oct. 6, 2020

That is the point in Mars' orbit when it comes closest to Earth, this time at about 38.6 million miles (62.07 million kilometers) from our planet. Mars was visible for much of the night in the southern sky and at its highest point at about midnight.

Mars will still be visible through October, but will become fainter as Mars and Earth travel farther away from each other in their orbits around the Sun.

This time of excellent Mars viewing coincides with opposition, when Mars is directly on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun. This lineup happens about every two years. During this opposition, Mars and Earth are closest to each other in their orbits. That means Mars is at its brightest, so go out and take a look!

NASA's Mars 2020 mission, with its Perseverance rover, is currently en route to the Red Planet, with a landing scheduled for Feb. 18, 2021. Several other nations also have spacecraft headed to Mars.

Diagram showing the Sun in the center, with Earth between the Sun and Mars, with all three in alignment.
Diagram shows the configuration of Earth, Mars, and the Sun during opposition.

What is Mars Close Approach?

Close Approach is when Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun. Close is a relative term. The minimum distance from Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles (54.6 million kilometers). However, that doesn't happen very often.

Illustration of the orbits of Mars and Earth around the sun during Close Approach.
Illustration of the orbits of Mars and Earth around the sun during Close Approach.

If Earth and Mars had perfectly circular orbits, their minimum distance would always be the same. However, they have elliptical (egg-shaped) paths.

In addition, gravitational tugging by planets constantly changes the shape of their orbits a little bit. Giant Jupiter especially influences the orbit of Mars.

The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted with respect to each other.

All of these factors mean that not all close encounters are equal. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years! It won't be that close again until the year 2287.

When Mars and Earth are close to each other, Mars appears very bright in our sky. It also makes it easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye. The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years.

Close Approach: Mars Hoax

However, don't be fooled by the Mars Hoax! Since 2003, this urban legend has been circulated through email and social media every time Mars makes a close approach.

Don't be fooled by the Mars Hoax. The message is that Mars will look as big as the Moon in our night sky. If that were true, we'd be in big trouble given the gravitational pulls on Earth, Mars, and our Moon!

When does Mars Close Approach Occur?

Though Earthlings will be able to get a good look at Mars during close approach, NASA's Curiosity rover and Insight lander on Mars will not be able to see Earth.
Though Earthlings will be able to get a good look at Mars during close approach, NASA's Curiosity rover and Insight lander on Mars will not be able to see Earth.

Mars Close Approach happens about every 26 months. It is closely related to Mars Opposition and Mars Retrograde.

Since Mars and Earth are at their closest, it's generally the best time to go to Mars. Many Mars missions have taken advantage of the close distance to visit the red planet. That's why, depending on budgets, you'll often see that Mars missions launch about every two years:

2001 Mars Odyssey
2003 Mars Exploration Rovers
2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
2007 Mars Phoenix Lander
2009 (skipped opportunity)
2011 Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover
2013 MAVEN
2016 (skipped opportunity)
2018 InSight
2020 Mars 2020
2022 Mars Sample Return

Archived Content 2003 and 2005 ›

Next Mars Close Approach in 2022

Missed seeing Mars Close Approach in 2020? Not to worry! The next Mars Close Approach is Dec. 8, 2022, when the Red Planet will be only 38.6 million miles (62.07 million kilometers) from Earth. Taking advantage of the short trip-time will be NASA’s next mission to Mars, known as Mars Sample Return, a campaign to bring samples of Mars rocks and soil back to Earth, where they can be studied in detail.

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