Mars, the fabled "Red Planet" that was long reputed to be the home of alien creatures, makes its closest approach to Earth in 17 years later this month, astronomers say.

Already the close encounter has produced a brilliant "star" in the evening skies that has been prompting calls from people wanting to know if they're seeing a UFO."It's very, very bright right now, rivaling some of the brightest stars," explained Michael Umbricht, coordinator of the Cormack Planetarium here. "As long as people have a general idea where to took for it, it's difficult to miss."

Mars is below the four stars of "Great Square" in the constellation "Pegasus." Around 10 p.m. in North America, it can be seen as the bright star in the southeastern sky.

Technically, the close encounter will occur Sept. 22, when Mars and Earth are 36 million miles apart. But it will not appear to be impressive that night because the Moon will be nearby, washing out some of Mars' brightness.

The best time to watch it is now, when the Moon doesn't rise until after midnight.