Red planet puts on good show

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Sixty thousand years ago, the Earth was in the middle of an ice age when Neanderthal man looked up into the heavens to see Mars, as bright in the sky as it is this week.

Well, kind of, said Colorado Mountain College astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake.

Reports that Mars is closer to Earth than it has been in 60,000 years is true, he said, but the distance difference is just a few kilometers.

"This is kind of getting blown out of proportion," he said. "Every 15 years we have a view like this."

That doesn't mean sky watchers won't be out en masse for special Mars viewing, however.

"Mars will be close and bright in the sky," Westlake said. "It has already been attracting a lot of attention."

Earthlings have been fascinated by the red planet since 1877 when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli noticed fine dark lines on the surface of Mars.

He called them "channels," but the word was translated into English as "canals."

"Canals are man-made and the misinterpretation caused great excitement," Westlake said. "People began imagining all kinds of things."

"We didn't know if there was life on Mars until we were finally able to send spacecraft there in the '60s and '70s," he said. "It's been proven that there is not intelligent life on the planet. What is not clear is whether there is some kind of microbial life.

"If we discovered bacterium, even if it was fossilized, that grew independently on Mars, that would be an incredible discovery. If there was life on two planets in our solar system how much more is out there in the universe?"

On Aug. 27, Mars will be 35 million miles from Earth, which is technically the closest it has been in 60,000 years. For perspective, the moon is 250,000 miles away, Westlake said. Mars will be 140 times farther.

Mars will rise out the southeast when it gets dark. It can be viewed through any small telescope.

Mars will appear as an orange ball with a white patch on one side -- the polar ice cap.

Mars will be best viewed at midnight.

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