THE REAL STORY. Even when Mars is at opposition, which it won’t be until December 2007, it looks like an orangish star, nowhere near as big and bright as the full Moon.
Mars did make an extraordinarily close approach to Earth several years ago, culminating on 27 August 2003, when the red planet came within 35 million miles (or 56 million kilometers) of Earth, its nearest approach to us in almost 60,000 years. At that time, Mars appeared approximately 6 times larger and 85 times brighter in the sky than it ordinarily does. (The message quoted above was often reproduced with an unfortunate line break in the middle of the third sentence of the second paragraph, leaving some readers with the mistaken impression that Mars would “look as large as the full moon to the naked eye” and not realizing that the statement only applied to those viewing Mars through a telescope with 75-power magnification.)
Although Mars’ proximity to Earth in August 2003 (referred to as a perihelic opposition) was a rare occurrence, the red planet comes almost as near to us every 15 to 17 years. To the unaided observer, Mars’ appearance in August 2003 wasn’t significantly larger or brighter than it is during those much more common intervals of closeness.