The August Mars Hoax Is Back

Mars Hoax screen shot
NO WAY. This is a screen shot from a version of the August Mars chain letter we've received, pictures and all. Some versions of the letter mention that the Mars view has to be magnified 75 times to look like this, but even that hasn't been true since August 2003. For the real comparison, see below.
S&T: Alan MacRobert
It's almost August, and you know what that means. The August Mars Hoax is starting to go around again.

I just got a call from an astronomy educator in Louisiana. A TV station in Shreveport called him to check the news they'd heard that Mars will soon come so close to Earth that it will appear as big and bright as the Moon.

Actually, "hoax" is the wrong word for this thing, unless some joker is now spreading it knowingly (quite possible). It's an e-mail chain letter claiming that Mars will come closer than ever in history on August 23rd and will look as big as the full Moon. If your well-meaning great-aunt or your cousin's brother-in-law's dog hasn't sent it to you, it's probably just a matter of time.

What's going on is this. Back on August 23, 2003 (that's 2003 with a 3, folks), Mars had an especially favorable opposition, coming close enough to appear 25 arcseconds wide. That's still pretty tiny even in a telescope — smaller, for instance, than Jupiter always appears.

Moon and Mars
THE REAL STORY. Even when Mars is closest and brightest at opposition, it looks like an orangish star, nowhere near as big and bright as the full Moon.
S&T: Rick Fienberg
Back then, someone somewhere pointed out that at a magnification of 75× in a telescope, Mars would appear as big in the eyepiece (½° wide) as the Moon does unmagnified. True enough. But two things happened, as often do with chain letters. First, it got rewritten bit by bit to improve the story as people passed it around, so that the "75× in a telescope" was downplayed or, in some versions, left out. Second, the chain letter kept going and going, with the same breathless excitement, long after August 2003 receded into the mists of history.

In 2010, for instance, Mars's opposition happened on January 29th, and even that was a poor one, with Mars appearing just 14 arcseconds wide. In August this year Mars appears about as small as it gets, as it sinks low in twilight on the far side of the Sun from Earth.

Every year I give members of the news media, when they phone Sky & Telescope, the following quote:

"The Mars chain letter is not a bad thing, it's a good thing. It is basically harmless, so it is an immunization. That is, if you make a fool of yourself to your family and friends by sending it to them, you may be embarrassed enough that you won't send them the next e-mail chain letter you get, which could be a lot less benign."

P. S.: The first place to check for facts about any internet rumor, hoax, or urban legend is www.snopes.com. Bookmark it.

39 thoughts on “The August Mars Hoax Is Back

  1. Stephen

    When the letter arrives from someone known, it’s a conversation starter. Be prepared with the next opposition, it’s size and brightness, how to spot it in the sky, and offer to see it in a scope. My club has offered Mars opposition open house nights since 2003.

    Put out a scope for trick or treaters on Halloween. My porch faces west, where Jupiter will be. Mars rises later, when the kids have gone to bed.

  2. Tunç Tezel

    Just wait for the 2018 opposition of Mars when it will be nearly as close. Then the undead chain letter resurrecting for 15th time will have a meaning again.

    And people will be able to view Mars with the total Lunar eclipse of 27th July 2018 and see their comperative sizes for themselves.

  3. Terry Durbin

    How close would Mars have to get to actually be the same apparent diameter as the Moon (roughly I think its about 700,000 miles) and what would the gravitational effects be on the Moon and Earth?

  4. Alan MacRobert

    > How close would Mars have to get to

    > actually be the same apparent diameter
    > as the Moon…

    Interesting question. Mars is about twice the diameter of the Moon, so it would have to be about twice as far away (that is, about 480,000 miles). Gravity drops off as the square of distance, so from twice as far away a given gram of matter has 1/4 the gravitational pull. But the mass of an object scales as the cube of its diameter (assuming no change in density), so Mars has roughly 8 times the Moon’s mass. Therefore, if Mars were close enough to appear the same size in the sky as the Moon does, it would have twice the pull on us.

    Such a massive object coming so close to the Earth-Moon system would alter it pretty severely, depending on the circumstances of the encounter (how fast or slowly Mars passed by, and in what direction).

    The most familiar effect of the Moon’s gravity is the tides. Tidal effects drop off with the cube of distance, not the square. So the big Mars in the sky, twice as far away as the Moon but with 8 times the mass, would have a tidal effect equal to the Moon’s.

    Alan MacRobert

  5. Justin SJustin Skywatcher

    Because of my name and because I am interested in astronomy, I get about 20 of these per year. I try to explain the facts to those people. Interestingly, a few insist that I must be wrong because the email must be right! After all if it were not true, “They” would not say it, would they?

  6. Kurt

    Plus, as I recall, the image in that email isn’t even of Mars, instead it’s a satellite of Jupiter or Saturn. At least it’s red. If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me.

  7. gary gragg

    I really enjoyed looking at mars in aug. 2003, but for four years now all my friends and family send loads of e-mails to to me, as soon as they get the hoax e-mail. At first I got a lot of laughts. It was almost as funny as someone saying meade makes a great product. Now it’s like everyone forgets the previous year and I send out dozens of replys with the facts. The worst part is when they say “oh I only though you would be intrested. I’m not going to get up at 3:30 am to see it anyway” ARGGGGGG!

  8. Bill

    When my workmates sent me several emails about this a few years ago I replied with the facts and a doctored picture of Mars being tractor beam towed by the Starship Enteprise, explaining this was the only way it would happen :-)

  9. Suburban Glarewatcher

    Because of my name, I like to use ANY opportunity to turn such a hoax into a light pollution lesson, which is even more sorely needed.
    The Perseids have presented a really good opportunity to discuss how much better the shower would look for 75% of the USA if their sky weren’t washed out by poorly designed, unshielded, dangerous, inefficient, and often redundant outdoor lighting.

  10. Charles Stoffers

    My usual reply to the annual round of this silly hoax is to reply that the false prophesy of the first line “will look as large as the moon to the naked eye”, might lead to the truth of the prophesy of the last line “no one alive today will ever see this again”. Since the average orbit of Mars is about 1.52 AU, yielding a varying earth distance of 235 million to 40 million miles, an approach of an extraterrestrial object of this size (4228.4 miles diameter), to within 480,000 miles,(the viewing distance) from those distances (without knowing the final approach vector) might mean the end of life on earth as we know it. Therefore if the world is going to end on August 27, 2007, “no one alive today” will see anything after August 28.

  11. Joel Coble

    Hello,

    How much magnification does it take to make Mars look as big as the Moon?

    As I recall, looking in 2003, with magnification of over 100X, Mars still looked like a tiny disc, not half as big as the Moon.

    Or for this year, when Mars appears to be 16″ in size (about one quarter of one-sixtieth of one degree, right?) —will Mars look the size of the Moon if I use 120X ?

    Thanks for the help and thoughts,
    Joel

  12. Julie in the sky with diamonds

    I met some new freinds last night and Contessa Franchesca insisted that I go to the beach to watch as Mars cruies up to the full moon at 12:35AM EST. Although the thought of Mars being as large as the moon was absolutely thrilling but not possible, unless you believe in magic, here are the small but wonderful events this allowed for me: 1. It got me out into the salt marsh on my dock with my white cat and enjoyed the amazing amount of light the full moon emmits, and also enjoyed the tide racing out at what lookes like 8 knots. There is just something so awesome about the full moon and being out in nature. Too many people never ever get introduced to this. Lets all introduce astronomy to three new people every year! Starting out with looking at the stars with binoculars always does the trick! 2. After going out to the rumored 12:35 event. I came in and logged onto Sky & Tele just to learn about the eclipse I didn’t know about! Another good thing. And three, last but not least, it pulled me back into astronomy so I’ll start paying attention and enjoying the amazing in the sky. Only what I can imagine people have been doing for years, especially before TV, computers, and gaming. Thank you God for the rumor. What fun! Julie on the Georgia Coast!

  13. Crandell Overton

    Just to suggest, as a gentle caution, against using words like “stupid” and “embarrassment” when correcting anyone with a misapprehension about an arcane subject that the public often perceives astronomy to be; we might better simply tell people that it is a hoax. That they may subsequently feel embarrassment or that they are stupid is up to them, but we shouldn’t be the ones suggesting it.

    Let’s embrace the inteest, not criticize it.

    Thanks.

    -Crandell

  14. M. Sharkey

    Actually, as I have received the latest round of this chestnut from various ‘friends’, I have responded with the snopes site for elucidating them… but this year I have also mentioned that a semi-rare sky event WILL be occurring in August – Saturn will be nekkid! The planet’s rings will be invisible (because they are edge-on). When will this semi-rare event occur next? Almost 15 years… Which was interesting enough that our Scout Troop now wants to see ‘nekkid Saturn’.

  15. T

    Ok unless this giant reddish orange ball in the eastern sky literally right before sunrise the last week of april was a mars look-a-like, I did indeed see it on a much larger scale than I expected to. I didn’t expect to see it at all. I had been up looking at jupiter and venus and as the sky started to lighten here comes what I would swear was mars. I even checked it out over the following nights up to 2 weeks ago on a smaller scale but still visible to the naked eye and very visible via telescope. My location is 50 miles north of New Orleans La.
    Now, this leads me to a question that I’m not sure how to formulate; given mars’ 2 year orbital pattern around the sun compared to earth’s 24hr pattern and the tilt of earth’s axis, if it was possible the morning I was amazed by its size and visibility is it also possible for this to occur again soon at certain intervals, or was this just a one morning lucky situation? And if the computer print out sky chart I have in my star finder book is from that night the date on bottom of page is april 23rd. I would really like an accredited professional opinion because this is gonna drive me crazy.

  16. Steve Petty

    What is really funny is the local Central California Coast TV channel picked up the story and ran it on the 11 o’clock news.

    Now everyone knows it MUST be true!

  17. George

    I have received three or four of these emails and I immediately try to educated the sender about authenticating before sending such things. But I think there is something innate in us that we like to be the announcer of something unusual and spectacular.
    George

  18. Enrico the Great

    Like clockwork, I got the Mars hoax e-mail again at work on Friday. Every year this happens now. How annoying. Oh well, I will e-mail this article to the culprit and her other victims, hopefully they will get someting out of it. But, people can SOOO dense. Some of them are so dense they absorb neutrinos! last weekend I went to the Rose Center Hayden Planetarium. Currently on display there are beaitfully printed large not often seem photographs from the Apllo missions. As I was enraptured while admiring a stunning picture of the Lunar surface, I overheard a teenager trying to impress his girlfriend bu saying “I heard the moon landings were faked”. She answered with a languid “yeah”! I had to resist the urge to throttle them! or just give them a good thrashing! I, after all did not want to be the next day’s New York Post headline! But, if Iget that Mars e-mail again……

  19. Carl Eberly (& Tanny)

    Well, personally, folks, I DID get up at 3:30 A. M. to see it–and there it was! Yes, yes, it was there in the sky! Mars! Mars as big as the Moon!

    I know it was Mars because it was reddish-orange and had those straight canals full of water that were built by the Martians before they died out. (Although, I’m not convinced they actually died out, ’cause you know how those NASA people lie about stuff like that.)

    As for Mars being a hoax, hey, look, it was NO hoax! It was so close, you could even see that Martian face. And the Martian pyramids, too. It was all there. Even the crashed flying saucer that NASA removed from the photo taken by that little rover back in ’97.

    Yes sir, Mars was there that night. But the next night it was gone.

    Don’t miss it this time (Aug 11-12, I think).

  20. Carl (& Tanny)

    Yes, it’s true: We faked the lunar landings. In truth, they never even launched Hubble. All those deep space pictures you see are taken right here on Earth. There is nobody living in the space station either. No shuttle taking people into space, no communication satellites, no space probes going about the solar system photographing Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, etc.. IT’S ALL FAKE! Why is NASA and all the other countires partaking in this great fakery of space exploration? Because–tada–they don’t want us to know the truth. And the TRUTH is, all that space stuff you see going on is really those aliens flying around. It’s all a part of the world governments doing a massive cover-up so that people don’t panic. (It might cause a great world-wide economic crash or something.) Same thing with the fakery about warming climate, etc.. Aliens. It’s all about aliens. Thank God we good folks have God on our side. God loves Americans but He HATES aliens! (Oh, yeah, I almost fogot to tell ya’–Obama weren’t not born in America, folks, he is an alien from outer space!)

  21. Enrico the Great

    Some food for Thought. When Americans had a greater sense of patriotism we initiated the Apollo program under a Democratic President (John F. Kennedy) and went to the Moon “…in Peace for all Mankind”. Now, we are stuck in low Earth orbit, if the Wire Service News items on this veru website are to be believed. In the mid 1960s a Democratic Senator (Walter F. Mondale, D-Minnesota) tried to kill the Apollo program. A Republican President (Richard M. Nixon)cancelled the three last Apollo missions (Apollos 18, 19, and 20)Under the auspices of President Nixon, the least capable of the proposed shuttle designs was chosen. Except for the Florida congressional delegation, there is no real constitency for space flight in either party. This reflects a lack of imagination in the electorate (thats US folks!!!) Instead of sending dopey hoax e-mails, whether you are Conservative or Liberal, let your Representatives know you want this Nation to compete in Space AGAIN!!!!!!

  22. Ted Morris

    Yeah, We got a new Meade ETX-80, but the handbox ephemeris can’t be updated online. So do I get another handbox,(will it work?) or sell it and invest in a larger more sizable mars viewer?

  23. Ted Morris

    Yeah, We got a new Meade ETX-80, but the handbox ephemeris can’t be updated online. So do I get another handbox,(will it work?) or sell it and invest in a larger more sizable mars viewer?

  24. Evan James

    I keep getting these emails saying that mars is going to be as big as the full moon. I think everyone knows its not true but they are not using common sense and sending it instead of deleting it. I wish this event would occur because it would be very spectacular. However I know this event is pretty much impossible. In fact if you go out in august and view mars you wont see it because it rises around 3:30. sorry

  25. Navneeth

    I would like to meet the person(s) who sends it out during July/August every year since 2004? Someone is obviously interested enough to remember sending this…

    Does anyone think that this could an inside job — an amateur astronomer seeking attention? j/k

  26. Pete

    Surely you need more than one single occurrence of a mistake before making such wild claims as “the ….is back”. Can we please have alittle perspective in these reports, rather than making such an overstatement out of an isolated incident.

  27. Rob

    It’s not all bad, every year when I read the s&t commentary about the hoax I get to briefly relive that night back in 2003 when mars was breathtaking in my 16″ SC

  28. Rob

    It’s not all bad, every year when I read the s&t commentary about the hoax I get to briefly relive that night back in 2003 when mars was breathtaking in my 16″ SC

  29. Ben

    Sorry about the misunderstood letter. I wrote the email to non-astronomer friends. I thought it was interesting that then, Mars’ size in my telescope was about as large as the Moon. It was hard to express the comparison simply.

  30. Edmond

    I respectfully disagree with the quote – the email could be quite harmful if it is crafted to carry a malware which could potentially infect the PC. Even if it harmless, by forwarding it, we’re actually becoming “spammers” ourselves.

  31. Michael Lecuyer

    This statement was made in the Sky & Telescope June 2005 issue. The test report article is titled “AVA’s Atmospheric Dispersion Corrector” – worth reading for it’s own sake.

    “I first tested the PADC in 2003 when Mars was so close to the Earth that a magnification of only 75X made its ruddy globe appear as big as the full Moon seen with the naked eye.”

    Looks like S&T had a hand in this hoax :)

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