If Shepherd Darquea has seemed a little spaced out during the first few days of school, it's probably because he is.
"I'm very excited that Mars is so close. I think about it a lot," he said. "I don't know if anyone else thinks about it very much but I sure do."
Darquea, 14, became interested in astronomy at 6. Since then, his interest has grown into a passion.
He set up his 7-inch reflecting telescope Tuesday night when the red planet was a mere 35 million miles away -- that's five times closer than it was just six months ago and the closest it's been in 60,000 years.
Scientists predict Mars won't be this close again until Aug. 28, 2287.
"It was awesome," said Darquea, a freshman at Carson High School. "It was closer than Venus. It makes me feel kind of special because it's history right now."
Seeing Mars up close only piqued Darquea's fascination with astronomy.
"Things are happening up there," he said. "We should go explore it more. All the time I stare up at Mars and think maybe one day I'll have the chance to walk on it."
Darquea plans to pursue a career as an astronaut after graduation.
The Jack C. Davis Observatory at Western Nevada Community College will be open to the public Friday and Saturday from dusk until 2 a.m. both days.
Robert Collier, professor of physics and astronomy, said the best time to view the planet will be after midnight when the skies are clearer. If clear enough, Collier said viewers may be able to see the polar ice cap and other details on the surface of Mars.
Astronomy teachers at Carson High School are offering their students the opportunity to receive extra credit by attending the viewing at the observatory.
Junior Robert Starks, 16, plans to take advantage of the offer.
"We won't be alive the next time it's this close," he said. "We really don't know that much about the planet except that there might have been life on it. This is a chance to learn more about it."
Gary Casselman urged his students to look at the planet, even if they don't use a telescope.
"I've seen it in the night sky," he told them. "As soon as it gets dark, guys, it's right on the horizon. It's very easy to see."
IF YOU GO
What: Mars Viewing
When: dusk until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Jack C. Davis Observatory at Western Nevada Community College
Facts about Mars:
-- Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.
--It is more like Earth than any other body in our solar system. It has mountains and valleys, polar ice caps and dry riverbeds. It has seasons, an atmosphere with clouds, wind and dust storms and a solid rocky surface.
-- Compared to all the other known planets besides Earth, Mars also has a moderate climate -- summertime temperatures at the Martian equator are comparable to those of winter in Antarctica. As a result, Mars is the only place other than the moon that humans can think realistically about exploring on foot.
-- Ferric oxide -- rusty iron -- is what gives Mars' sandy soil its distinctive red color. Its blood red color is the reason Mars is named for the Roman god of war.
-- Mars is half the size of the Earth and twice the size of the moon.
-- A Mars day is almost the same length as an Earth day. A day on the moon is an Earth month.
-- You would weigh 1/3 as much on Mars as you do on Earth. On the moon you'd weigh 1/6 as much.