Don’t Get Snookered by Internet Mars Malarkey

August 7, 2006

Contacts:
Alan M. MacRobert, Senior Editor
  617-864-7360 x151, amacrobert@SkyandTelescope.com
Marcy L. McCreary, VP Marketing & Business Dev.
  617-864-7360 x143, mmccreary@SkyandTelescope.com

Note to Editors/Producers: This release is accompanied by two publication-quality graphics; see details below.

If no one has asked you about it yet, they probably will. A bogus e-mail chain letter, sometimes titled "Mars Spectacular," has been circulating around the Internet, as it did two years ago. It claims that on August 27th the planet Mars will dazzle the world, appearing brighter than ever in history and "as large as the full Moon to the naked eye."

The problem is that "August 27th" is actually August 27, 2003. Mars did make a historically close pass by Earth at that time. In August 2006, though, the Red Planet is invisible, hidden behind the glare of the Sun. And, of course, to the naked eye Mars will always looks like a bright star, not the full Moon.

As they orbit the Sun, the Earth and Mars make a close approach every 2¼ years or so. This time is called "opposition," because from our perspective on Earth, Mars then appears opposite the Sun in the sky. On average the two planets come within 48 million miles of each other. But because their orbits are elliptical (oval) rather than perfectly circular, the minimum separation between the two planets varies from one opposition to the next.

In late August 2003 Mars came within 35 million miles of Earth, and in late October and early November 2005 it came within 43 million miles. Mars's next opposition will come in December 2007, when it will be farther still, 55 million miles from Earth. For reference, the Moon orbits the Earth at an average distance of about 240,000 miles, and the average Earth–Sun distance is about 93 million miles.


"The Mars chain letter gets revived every August," says Alan MacRobert, a senior editor of Sky & Telescope. "I see it as a good thing, not a bad thing. It's an immunization. If you make a fool of yourself by sending it to your friends and family, you'll be less likely to send them the next e-mail chain letter you get, which may not be so harmless."

The first place to check for facts about any Internet rumor, hoax, or urban legend is www.snopes.com. Bookmark it!


Sky & Telescope is pleased to make the following graphics available to our colleagues in the news media. Permission is granted for one-time, nonexclusive use in print and broadcast media, as long as appropriate credits (as noted in each caption) are included. Web publication must include a link to SkyandTelescope.com.

Mars rises over Boston's Back Bay skyline in late August 2003, when the Red Planet made a historically close approach to Earth. Download a publication-quality version (3.2-megabyte JPEG) by anonymous FTP.
Sky & Telescope photograph by Richard Tresch Fienberg.
Sky & Telescope assistant editor Sean Walker assembled this image of Mars on the morning of August 18, 2005, using 846 video frames obtained with a 7-inch telescope and ToUcam Pro webcam. The prominent dark marking at upper right is Syrtis Major; note too the bright south polar ice cap.
Sky & Telescope photograph by Sean Walker.

About Sky Publishing
Sky Publishing Corp. was founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, the original editors of Sky & Telescope magazine. In addition to Sky & Telescope and SkyandTelescope.com, the company publishes Night Sky magazine (a bimonthly for beginners), two annuals (Beautiful Universe and SkyWatch), as well as books, star atlases, posters, prints, globes, and other fine astronomy products.

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