At 3:50 am the morning of July 31, Mars reached its closest point to Earth in its orbit. The planet hasn’t been this close to Earth since August 2003! And when this last approach occurred, it was the first time in 60,000 years that Mars had come so close. Although Mars reached its closest early this morning, it is still a magnificent sight to see if you missed it. This is an especially big deal because humanity will have to wait another 269 years for Mars to get much closer, NASA says. So, even if you missed it on July 1st, take a look this week and you should still have a stellar view.
Get a Look
If you want to check out the Red Planet, you can see Mars tonight by looking toward the southwestern sky. To take full advantage of this celestial spectacle, just wait for the sun to set and turn your gaze to the east. You will see what looks like a reddish star glowing brightly in the night sky. That’s Mars! And it is the best view you are going to get for at least the next 17 years.
Depending on the weather, Mars will be visible low on the southwestern horizon, with the moon shining to the upper left. Saturn also made a close approach to Earth this summer, and the ringed planet remains especially visible for anyone scouring the sky for the best sights, according to Space.com.
Astronomy for Scouts
For Scouts who find this event especially interesting, the Astronomy Merit Badge (an elective) might be the perfect badge to earn.
The merit badge course description explains exactly what Scouts can gain from earning the Astronomy Merit Badge. “In learning about astronomy,” it says, “Scouts study how activities in space affect our own planet and bear witness to the wonders of the night sky: the nebulae, or giant clouds of gas and dust where new stars are born; old stars dying and exploding; meteor showers and shooting stars; the moon, planets, and a dazzling array of stars.”
Scouts can even work towards achieving the badge by studying Mars this week. Requirement #5 says:
Do the following:
- a. List the names of the five most visible planets. Explain which ones can appear in phases similar to lunar phases and which ones cannot, and explain why.
- b. Using the Internet (with your parent’s permission), books, and other resources, find out when each of the five most visible planets that you identified in requirement 5a will be observable in the evening sky during the next 12 months, then compile this information in the form of a chart or table.
- c. Describe the motion of the planets across the sky.
- d. Observe a planet and describe what you saw.
These requirements and Mars’ current position provide an extremely unique opportunity for Scouts to study the Red Planet and its relation to Earth and everything else in our solar system.
Whether you are just a casual viewer of the night sky, a Scout working towards this merit badge or a professional from NASA, this celestial event is extremely special.
So, don’t forget to take a look at the night sky tonight! This will be your last chance for many years to get a look at Mars up close.