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Goodbye Mars Hoax… for another year, anyway

Yet another August has brought yet another rendition of the Great Mars Hoax. A viral email telling people Mars would be as big as the Moon on August 27th derailed several days of work while I answered hordes of  public inquiries about what would be seen. (Short answer: nothing.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love answering questions from the public. It’s a chance to interact one-on-one with people interested in science and astronomy, genuinely curious about the night sky. Unfortunately, in this case I had to tell people that what they read on the internet just wasn’t true. A lot of people were disappointed in the answer, and in the sky in general.

Like any good hoax, this one grew around a nugget of truth. On August 27th, 2003 (note the year!), Mars did pass about as close to Earth as it could get. We were out at Bird’s Hill Park for several public telescope nights back in 2003, and we had something over 10,000 people turn up to see the Red Planet. To the unaided eye, it looked like a really bright, reddish-coloured star – nowhere near as big as the moon, though. In fact, about 75 times smaller than the moon.

But somewhere, some astronomer with bad writing skills issued a press release or made a statement that went something like this: “On August 27th, if you put a 75x eyepiece in your telescope, then you’ll see Mars appear about as big as the moon does to the unaided eye.” What should have been written was something like this: “On August 27th *2003*, if you put a 75x eyepiece in your telescope, Mars will appear *through your telescope* about as big as the Moon does *to the unaided eye*. ”

Those missing details were then helped along by some malicious person who added pictures of a total lunar eclipse (when the moon turns red), and the undated email now appears every year. It wasn’t true in 2003, and it’s not true now. In fact, it can never be true, since Mars can never get close enough to Earth to appear that big. I mean, the moon is only 374,000km away, and Mars is only about twice as big as the moon is. That means Mars would have to be less than 800,000 km away to appear that big. If Mars somehow broke out of its orbit and was moving closer to Earth, you can bet it would be *the* news item. Even if somehow all the astronomers in the world, professional and amateur, were involved in one of those giant government conspiracies that are always invoked to explain stupid things, we’d STILL find out about it. The tides would be affected, both in timing and size, so you’d have to get all the fishermen and sailors and everyone who lives near the ocean in on the conspiracy as well.

OK, enough ranting. The Mars Hoax does have a silver lining, though – I got to talk with a whole bunch of people who might not have called in otherwise, and I got to tell them where Mars really was in the sky – and Venus and Jupiter as well. Those folks got to see three planets in the sky that they might not have seen otherwise. For some of them, their personal universe got a little bigger because of it.

You can find out where the planets are – for real – on our “The Sky This Month” section of the Planetarium’s website. Visit www.manitobamuseum.caand click on the Planetariums ection – there you’ll find all sorts of information on the sky, telescopes, and of course our shows and programs. Or you can always call me.

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Scott Young

Manager of Science Communications and Visitor Experiences

“Scott is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Manitoba Museum, developing astronomy and science programs. He has been an informal science educator for thirty years, working in the planetarium and science centre field both at The Manitoba Museum and also at the Alice G. Wallace Planetarium in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Scott is an active amateur astronomer and a past-President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.”