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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Mars will NOT be close to Earth, nor “as large as the Moon” in August 2009 or ever!

Sorry I have to write this, but every August since 2003 I have gotten these questions about a spectacular showing of Mars in our sky because an anonymous email makes the rounds of the Internet causing people to get excited. THIS EMAIL IS NOT TRUE. Two people have asked me about this in the past couple of days and I suspect there are a lot more innocent folks who are looking forward to something that just isn’t going to happen – this year, or ever.

The most outrageous claim in this email goes something like this:

On the night of Aug. 27, the planet Mars will come closer to Earth than it has in the past 60,000 years, thereby offering spectacular views of the Red Planet.  Mars will appear to the naked eye as bright as and as large as the full moon. No one living today will ever see this again!

No one living today will ever see this. Period. OK. here’s the simple truth. Mars is in the morning sky this August, near the bright, red star Aldebaroan. (See my post on observing August planets here.) To the naked eye both will look like stars of roughly the same brightness and hue. In a very good telescope, Mars will look like a very tiny planet, about one-fifth the size it is when it actually does make a close approach to Earth.  Mars and the Earth are relatively  close to one another  – 35 to 50 million miles apart – every two years. I saw it August 7, 2009.  Fun, but far too small even in my best telescope, to see any details on it.

How does this compare with the Moon for size?  The moon is roughly 30 minutes of arc – half a degree – in our sky. Mars is rougly 5 seconds of arc. That means that this August the Moon is about 360 times as large as Mars in our sky. Or think of it this way – if the Moon looked  as big as a football field, Mars would look about the size of a football. Even when Mars is seen at its largest, as it was in 2003, the Moon was still 72 times as large!

In short, this Mars email is just another Internet urban legend telling us things that would be fun if they were true, but really are far, far from the truth. For details on this, please visit the Snopes.com site – in fact, anytime you receive an email that sounds too good to be true – on almost any subject – check snopes.com before you forward the email to friends. It’s a great clearing house forgetting ut the truth on these legends.

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