The University of Utah Physics Department observatory is open for free viewings of Mars, fourth planet from the sun and Earth's next-door neighbor.

Hours for viewing of the famous "red planet," which is closer to Earth than it has been for 113 years, are 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. through Oct. 14 and Oct. 17, 19 and 21. Other times are available by appointment, according to Lowell Lyon, an officer of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society.Also, the Planetary Society, in cooperation with the Salt Lake and Ogden Astronomical Societies and the Hansen Planetarium, will sponsor a Mars Watch '88 star party Oct. 14 and 15 in the parking lot of the Harmons Family Center, 980 E. Fort Union Blvd., Midvale.

Incorporating telescopic viewing with informal discussions on various astronomical topics, the parties are part of the Planetary Society's world-wide Mars Watch '88 program.

Observation will begin at 8 both nights and run until midnight. The event is free and open to the public, giving everyone a chance to view Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the moon through the largest telescopes in Utah.

Those attending are encouraged to bring their own telescopes and binoculars. Beginners will receive assistance operating their equipment if desired.

Light refreshments will be provided free, courtesy of Harmons.

Telescopically, Mars appears as an ocher-red disk marked by extensive dark areas. Its tenuous atmosphere is believed to consist mainly of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other gases, and the distinctive Martian polar caps are thought to be composed of frozen carbon dioxide ice. The atmospheric pressure of Mars is only 1 percent of the Earth's atmospheric pressure, said Lynn Higgs, administrative manager of the U. Physics Department.

On top the South Physics Building, the observatory is located on the south side of First South between University and Wolcott streets. Parking is available to the east by the Naval Science Building or to the west behind Gardner and Kingsbury Halls.

Physics personnel will be available to operate the telescope and give background information about what can be seen on Mars, which by the end of October will appear only half its present size. On Sept. 27 Mars was the closest distance, 35 million miles, from the Earth.

Viewing of Mars from the Salt Lake area won't be good again until the year 2020.

There is no charge for admission. More information is available by calling the Physics Department, 581-6901.

For individuals unable to visit the observatory or to attend the star party, Higgs suggested that people look into the southeast sky about 10 p.m.

"Mars will appear as a very bright orange object. It can be seen very nicely with just a good pair of binoculars," Higgs said.