The Martian Sky: Stargazing from the Red Planet

While Earthlings are all so busy gazing at Mars, did you ever wonder what it would be like to gaze at Earth from Mars? Are Mars' skies really pink? How bright would Earth be and what would happen to Earth when Mars is at opposition?

Most of the images below have larger versions available by clicking on the image.

Sunset near Twin Peaks
on Mars

This is a true colour image of an actual sunset on Mars taken by Pathfinder. Twin Peaks can be seen on the horizon. The sky around the Sun is a pale bluish colour. The image was taken around 4pm.

This series of images is a false colour time-lapse sequence of the Martian sunrise. The bottom image is the first one taken just before sunrise. Notice how the Martian sky gets light before sunrise. This is due to all of the dust in Mars' atmosphere. Light from the sun is caught and scattered in the dusty atmosphere making the sky light before the sun even rises.

This image is very similar to the one above except that the sun has already set. The image was taken as part of a twilight study which indicates how the brightness of the sky fades with time after sunset. It was determined that the Martian sky stays bright for as long as two hours after the Sun has set. Again, this phenomena is due to the height of the dust in Mars atmosphere, indicating that Martian dust extends very high into the atmosphere.

There are times when Mars' sky takes on a strange violet hue. The colouration is caused when water ice clouds cover the sky. The water ice particles are much smaller than the Martian dust. Small particles, some one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair, are bright in blue light and almost invisible in red light. This enabled scientists to conclude that the ice particles are very small. This image was taken by the Imager for Mars Pathfinder.

These clouds could just as easily have come from Earth, but they are in fact the first colour image ever taken of an overcast sky on Mars. The pink stratus clouds are coming from the northeast at about fifteen miles per hour (6.7 m/s). The clouds are about ten miles (16km) above the surface. The clouds themselves are composed of water ice condensed on reddish-brown dust particles which are suspended in the atmosphere. Martian clouds are sometimes localized and other times cover huge areas. The image was taken about an hour and forty minutes before sunrise by the imager for Mars Pathfinder.

The Imager on Mars Global Surveyor usually spends its' time looking down on Mars, returning very detailed images of the planet. On May 8, 2003, however, the Imager looked up, and gazed at our home in space, returning this image of Earth and Jupiter in the evening skies of Mars. Earth is at the top and Jupiter at the bottom. Earth and Jupiter were in a close alignment in the Martian sky. This image marked the first planetary conjunction ever viewed from another world!

This image shows where Earth, Mars and Jupiter were in their orbits when the above image was taken during the conjunction of Earth and Jupiter.

This image of Earth and the Moon are the first image ever taken from another planet which depict the Earth and Moon as a disk rather than just a point of light. Notice that both the Earth and the Moon are exhibiting phases, just as Venus and Mercury do when seen from Earth. It is a beautiful sight to see our home from another world. Interestingly, when this image was taken, Earth was at magnitude -2.5 in the Martian sky, almost as bright as we are seeing Mars now. Our Moon was at magnitude +0.9. Earth and Mars were 139 million kilometers apart when the image was taken.

This is an overlay of the continents of North and South America on this view of Earth from Mars. Bright areas at the top of the image is cloud cover over central and eastern North America. Below that, the darker area is Central America and the Gulf of Mexico.

This is a magnificent view of Jupiter from Mars and clearly shows three of the four large Galilean moons of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, Jupiter was almost a billion miles away from Mars, over five times more distant than Earth from Mars, but still shining at -1.8 magnitude. Because of Jupiter's size, the Imager was still able to capture Jupiter's cloud bands. Callisto and Ganymede, shown on the left, are about the size of Mercury. Europa, shown on the right, is about the same size as Earth's Moon.

So what would it be like to be on Mars and gaze at Earth while the Earthlings are watching Mars at opposition? It would be quite dramatic, but you'd have to catch it just as it happened. Exactly when Mars is at opposition, the Earth could be seen transiting across the face of the Sun!

Close Encounters of the Martian Kind

What is an opposition?

Why will Mars be larger than usual and this event so rare?

Where and When to see Mars!

Timeline for Mars in 2003/2004 - What to Look for on the Red Planet!

Close Encounters of a Red Kind: Retrograde Motion of Mars

Mars through a Telescope: Getting the Most from the Red Planet

The Martian Sky: Stargazing from the Red Planet

More about Mars the planet

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Kathy Miles, Author, and Chuck Peters, Systems Administrator
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