TONIGHT, GO outside, look up - to the southeastern sky - and behold. That bright object, indeed the brightest object, is Mars, as close to Earth as you'll ever see it.

The day after NASA sent its largest infrared telescope into space - to witness the birth of solar systems - backyard planet-gazing may seem, well, quaint. But it should be more than worth it tonight, Mars' night.

The slightly orange orb appears more prominent because it's only 34.65 million miles away. It gets relatively close every 26 months, but this is as near as it's been in an estimated 60,000 years. It will be very close again in 2287, but waiting is not a good idea.

This is a bonanza for the legions of very sophisticated and well-equipped amateur astronomers around the world, who track Mars obsessively even when it is far more distant. Now, with just small telescopes, famed features such as its polar ice cap are readily apprehensible.

Mars will be at its closest right before dawn tomorrow. To the eye, it still will be only a fraction of the size of a full moon - offering only suggestions of the swirls that led a century ago to speculations of canals, civilizations and terrifying visits by beings of superior intelligence.

In space lore, aliens tend to be not-so-friendly Martians, from H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds to the '90s' cinematic spoof Mars Attacks! Somehow the Red Planet, the color of war, spawns little green men.

Of course, Mars - with its proximity and possibilities of earth-like conditions - has long been the candidate for life out there. This was dashed somewhat when NASA's 1976 Viking missions found its surface a desert and its soil absent of microbes. Recently released NASA research says it's unlikely Mars had oceans, though life might still have thrived along its glaciers' edges.

With Mars in the neighborhood, missions from NASA, Europe, Japan and the United Kingdom begin arriving at the end this year to continue the quest for life, perhaps simple bacteria deep in Martian rock. In the current Atlantic Monthly, Australian philosopher Paul Davies says that discovery would change everything for humans, much like Copernicus' assertion 500 years ago that the Earth wasn't at the center of the universe.

In essence, it would be another devastating blow to the conceit that humans are the beginning and end of it all - and a useful concept for all those who'd like to put a tad more distance between themselves and yesterday's, today's and tomorrow's problems.

That, it seems, is one of the chief advantages of getting close to Mars tonight. There may not be life on Mars, but contemplating the planet's approach better frames life here. So go outside, look up and behold this rare moment in celestial time.

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