Aside from Earth, Mars has captured the imagination of humankind far more than any other planet. Mars is the most colorful, the planet that comes closest to us and the one that just may harbor life of its own.

Mars is also the only planet that brightens so greatly out of inconspicuousness into prominence at infrequent but regular intervals. The next few weeks are one of those times.

See Mars for yourself: The moon will be more than half lit by this weekend and lingers through more of the night every night. At each nightfall, it appears a little closer to the right of the huge group of winter constellations that is centered around Orion and his belt of three stars. Ascending in the east all evening is a light almost as brilliant as the brightest star Sirius but distinctly orange-gold and steady in its shining - like a patient eye staring at us. That light will be Mars.

Mars and its wonders: Next week, when Mars comes closest to Earth, I will talk about observing it through telescopes and how you can get a free look at the planet through telescopes manned by local experts. But this week, even if you do not have a telescope, you can still look at the orange-colored planet and be filled with awe as you ponder what our spacecraft have taught us about the planet so far.

Important space missions to Mars have ranged from Mariner 9, Viking 1 and Viking 2 in the 1970s to keen-eyed Mars orbiters and in recent years, the robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity. What the missions have shown us has been astonishing and overwhelmingly beautiful.

Mars turns out to be a world of pink skies and blue sunsets; a world of two little, misshapen moons - one creeps along the Martian sky, the other flies fast. Mars has a canyon system many times deeper and wider than Earth's Grand Canyon that would stretch all the way across the U.S. if it were on Earth. Mars has a volcano, called Olympus Mons, that is as big as the state of Arizona and almost three times taller than Mount Everest.

Mars is also a world typically colder than Antarctica, with air only 1/100th as thick as Earth's and composed largely of carbon dioxide. Even so, much water exists frozen on the surface. Some scientists think Martian life may exist underground, and that visitors from Earth could visit and colonize the planet.

Of course, our past is filled with speculation and stories about the existence of Martians. Astronomer Percival Lowell thought he could see the dark lines of canals on Mars. H.G. Wells and Orson Welles gave us all a scare with the tale of Martian invasion called "The War of the Worlds." But our future with Mars could be even more exciting.

Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at:

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