The red planet comes for a visit


Turn your kids into star gazers


Our planetary next-door neighbor, Mars, will by stopping by for a celestial visit this month. Coming within just 34 million miles of Earth—pretty darn close by Milky Way standards—Mars will be visible as a bright orange spot in the southeastern sky for about a week starting Aug. 23.

"It's the closest Mars has ever been in recorded history to Earth," says Bart Benjamin, director of the Cernan Earth and Space Center at Triton College in west suburban River Grove.

While you can view the planet with nothing more than the naked eye, using a telescope could provide you and your child with the opportunity to appreciate greater detail, says Melissa Williams, an educator at Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

Through a telescope you can see Mars' polar ice caps, which are similar to ours here on Earth.

"You can actually see big white spots at the top and bottom," Williams says. "But it's a little more unusual [than how Earth looks] because the rest of Mars looks red."

The Cernan Center, 2000 Fifth Ave., River Grove, will have telescopes set up daily for viewing beginning at 9:30 p.m. from Aug. 23-30. The Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, will have telescopes available from 9 p.m. to midnight Aug. 28-29 and Sept. 5. Both are free to the public.

Benjamin and Williams say parents should use this visit from Mars to spark children's imaginations.

"If the child was going to become the first human to go to Mars, they can kind of imagine what they would do when they got there," Benjamin says.

"Get the kids" imagination involved in what it would be like to go to another planet, what sorts of things might you find there and how you would look for them," Williams says.

Benjamin says parents also should be on the lookout for a total lunar eclipse on Nov. 8 as well as for the return of Jupiter and Saturn to the sky later in the year.

"It's a great opportunity to start your kids thinking about other worlds, the idea of exploration and how Earth is a very special planet, but there's a lot of great things out there," Williams says.

For more information, visit the NASA Web site at, the Cernan Space Center Web site at, the Adler Planetarium at, or go to your local library for books on Mars and space exploration.



--Alina Machado, Medill News Service

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