Tired of Disneyland? Been to the Grand Canyon? Take in a new vacation spot -- Mars. This summer, the red planet's the closest it's been to Earth in 15,000 years, and Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center is taking advantage of that unprecedented proximity with its new "Mars Encounter" exhibit. The stellar showcase allows eager explorers to learn about our nearest (and now even nearer) neighbor. Aspiring astronomers can study up on past and future Mars missions at Mars Mission Control, run their hands over a tactile 4-foot Mars globe detailed with craters and volcanoes, and examine the mysterious scarlet planet's place in our culture and starscape with the planetarium's "Return to Mars" show. Older kids can apply what they've learned by building their own model Mars rover, while the younger kids can play the Mars quiz game or have their picture taken with a (plastic) Martian. Really old kids can check out the "Summer of Mars" lecture series and workshops or stay up late at the museum's observatory, which will be open until 2 a.m. every Saturday night from now until Sept. 6 to facilitate spying on our neighbor. It's the closest you can get to a Mars holiday without taking a three-month ride in a space shuttle.
The exhibit enjoys an open-ended run at the Chabot Space & Science Center, 10000 Skyline (at Joaquin Miller), Oakland. Admission is $4-11; call (510) 336-7300 or visit www.chabotspace.org.
-- Jack Karp
Let It Roll
Newspaperman Myron Scott hatched the Soapbox Derby in 1933 when, looking for a feature-page story, he ran across boys racing cars made of wooden soapboxes. The first formal derby attracted 40,000 spectators, all keen to watch 300 contestants fly downhill in their makeshift vehicles. These days derby cars are no longer made of soapboxes -- you try steering a cardboard box of Tide -- but the DIY wheels are still just as fun to build. And, thanks to souped-up modern designs, they're even more fun to race. The derby rolls at 12:30 p.m. at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, 556 McReynolds (at Murray), Sausalito. Admission is free; call 487-4398 or visit www.baykidsmuseum.org.
-- Joyce Slaton
Captivated by comic book ads that pictured capering crowned sea creatures, thousands of kids saved their pennies and sent away for a miraculous packet of Sea-Monkeys. Of course, when the packet arrived and was dumped eagerly into water, the Sea-Monkeys revealed themselves to be tiny brine shrimp -- no crowns, no capering. Still, they're pretty weird. How do they live through dehydration? What do they eat? Can they survive space travel? Susan Barclay, author of The Ultimate Guide to Sea-Monkeys, answers all these questions and more at the Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon (at Marina), S.F. The lighthearted lecture starts at noon; museum admission is free-$12. Call 397-5673 or visit www.exploratorium.edu.
-- Joyce Slaton
Wriggle on In
Science is absolutely cool. You get to play with odd substances that have strange smells, fascinating tactile properties, and a tendency to do fun things like fill a room with blue smoke. So why is it that science classes at school always seem like boring plods through textbooks? Introduce kids ages 5 to 9 to nature's squishier side in an up-close-and-personal setting at "Jennifer Setton's Science Wonders," where the youngsters can put live insects under the microscope to learn more about the physiology and ecology of creepy crawlers. The bugs start squirming at 4 p.m. at the Bernal Heights Branch Library, 500 Cortland (at Moultrie), S.F. Admission is free; call 355-2810.
-- Joyce Slaton