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Two planets are staging an impressive encounter in the early morning sky. They’re quite low in the southeast at first light, not far to the upper right of Venus, the “morning star.” Mars and Saturn aren’t nearly as bright as Venus. But their proximity to it — and to each other — will help them stand out.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun — one spot farther than Earth. Like Earth, it’s a ball of rock and metal. It has an atmosphere, but it’s not especially inviting. The air is extremely thin and cold, and Mars has no magnetic field to protect life from radiation. Spacecraft have found that Mars was much more welcoming billions of years ago, so it could have supported life when it was younger.
There’s little hope of life on Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun. It’s a big ball of gas with no solid surface. But some of its moons appear to have all the basic ingredients for life: water, energy, and the right chemistry. It won’t be easy to find life, though, because conditions on the moons are hostile, or because life is likely to be hidden far below the surface.
Saturn and Mars themselves are anything but hidden now. Look for them before and during dawn the next few days. Saturn is a bit brighter. Mars is to its upper right tomorrow, but will slide below Saturn in a few days. At their closest, on Monday and Tuesday, they’ll be separated by about half a degree — less than the width of your little finger held at arm’s length.
Script by Damond Benningfield