Moon and Mars
Mars and the Moon will stage one of the best skywatching performances of the year tonight. The Moon will pass just a fraction of a degree from Mars. If you're west of the Mississippi, they'll slip so close to each other that it'll look like you could hardly pass a sheet of paper between them.
After Earth, Mars is the most thoroughly studied planet in the solar system. In fact, a handful of robotic probes is operating at Mars right now, and another lander is on the way. Among the goals for these missions is to seek out the ingredients for life -- like water and organic compounds.
One team of scientists says it's already found organic compounds on Mars. They're in a meteorite from Mars known as ALH 84001.
In 1994, a different team reported that the meteorite contained evidence of ancient life on Mars. But many other scientists disputed the findings. Then last year, a team led by the Carnegie Institution reported that the meteorite contains not the evidence of life itself, but the building blocks of life -- organic compounds like those that make up life on Earth. If the findings are confirmed, then we at least know that Mars once had the ingredients necessary for life.
Mars and the Moon stand high in the sky at nightfall. Mars looks like a bright orange star quite close to the Moon. As they drop down the western sky later on, they'll move even closer together. They'll be at their closest in the wee hours of the morning.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.