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Hundreds turn out for Mars viewing party

By Miles O'Brien

Viewers with a telescope or binoculars should be able to pick out features on the surface of Mars.

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From CNN's Miles O'Brien in Villa Rica, Georgia:

VILLA RICA, Georgia (CNN) -- From Denmark to Australia, Beijing to Bangladesh, amateur astronomers have been flocking to stargazing parties. The big draw this week is not a star but a very close encounter with our planetary neighbor, Mars.

The big crowd of astronomers that gathered Saturday near Atlanta to gaze skyward got the view of a lifetime.

One gazer explained why she turned out, saying, "I thought I might not be around for the next 60,000 years, so I'd take the chance while I had it."

Get 'em while they're hot: the sizzling burgers and the blazing red planet.

It was enough to bring out a nocturnal throng. The farther away from the bright lights and the big city, the better.

Some attendees were strangers to the night sky. "I don't know what I'm doing," said one. "I'm very amateur."

Others found it a familiar place and had the pricey toys to prove it.

"I'm gonna mount a 35 millimeter camera right here, so as the camera is tracking I can take some long exposures," an astronomy aficionado told us as he explained how to work his equipment. "You've got to line the finder so you can pick up what's going through the eyepiece. You just pick a distance, line it up and lock it down."

We caught up with the Atlanta Astronomy Club in their viewing patch 30 miles outside town. On this night, nearly 300 people flocked to see the fourth rock from the sun, as close as it gets to the third -- that's us.

But let's try to put this "close" thing into perspective. Let's say you drive your car to Mars at 70 miles an hour, times 24 hours in a day, divide that into 35 million miles, which is the distance to Mars. You come out with 20,833 days. That's 57 years or so -- and that's without factoring in bathroom breaks for the kids -- so, it's not really THAT close.

The last time this happened was 60,000 years ago, which explains why it is hard to find the file footage in our library. We suspect Neanderthals of the time looked up at the bright red star and said ... "Ugh." There were no telescopes, computers or astronomy clubs.

Modern technology has improved the viewing experience tremendously. "Actually it was better than I'd hoped," said one young woman. "I was impressed with the equipment and all of the knowledge. It's a very enthusiastic crowd, a very knowledgeable crowd."

A club member offered this tutorial to a Boy Scout as he peered through a telescope: "As you're looking at Mars do you see something in the left hand corner... a little bright spot? That's the south polar ice cap. So you could be skiing on Mars on carbon dioxide when you grow up. What do you think? Ready to go?"

The response: A smile and a nod. In true Boy Scout form, he was prepared.

Many partygoers were impressed by the exclusivity of the fete. "Most people won't see this for thousands of years," observed one young partier.

Most indeed ... unless cryogenics pans out. This is a bona fide once in a lifetime event. The next time Mars gets this close will be in the year 2287.

"The unknown is what draws everybody here -- to take a good look at what you don't know. We get an opportunity to take it to our graves, cause we'll never get the opportunity again," said an enthusiast.

After Wednesday, Mars will start slipping away from us at a rate of nearly a million miles a day. But worry not planetary procrastinators -- the experts say it still will be very bright and big for at least another month.

Dan Llewellyn of the Atlanta Astronomy Club offered this advice: "It's the brightest object in the sky. You can see it with the naked eye. But if you've got a set of binoculars sitting around, grab your binoculars. It's a fantastic view."

If you miss it, you might very well kick yourself and say "Ugh."

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