Mars hoax does the rounds again

Hoax emails are once again flooding the internet promising a spectacular close encounter with Mars this August. A lurid image shows the Red Planet appearing the size of the Full Moon – an event that would surely be very newsworthy indeed.

Mars hoaxThe email – which I have seen circulated a PowerPoint presentation – has taken on the form of one of those annoying chain letters with recipients being urged to forward it to family and friends.

No doubt most do so in good faith. The trouble is that the spectacular sight being promised will not happen. The hoaxers are getting confused with one of Mars’s regular line-ups with Earth which happened back in August 2003.

Mars takes nearly twice as long as the Earth to orbit the Sun. It means that every couple of years or so, our two planets are at their closest. This happens around the time when Mars is said to be at Opposition.

It is true that Mars was especially close in August 2003, though at a distance of 35 million miles it still looked no bigger than a brilliant star with the unaided eye. The only way it could look as big as the Moon was when seen through a telescope.

Mars will not be at one of its close approaches to Earth again until January 2010 – there is a countdown to this event on our Mars guide – but that will bring it to a distance of just over 60 million miles

Mars is currently 185 million miles away and in August it will only appear as a pinprick of light. Fed up with the emails, Robin Scagell, vice-president of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, has produced a special web page to put things straight about the Mars hoax.

He told Skymania: “Lots of people have been asking us about this – but it is just a hoax. Mars WAS relatively close in August 2003, when it lay 35 million miles away. That was its closest approach in recorded history, but even then you needed a telescope to see it as a disk and not looking like a bright star.”

He added: “In 2009, Mars is all but unobservable until the end of the year, and even in 2010 it won’t be very much better. At its closest, it will be only half the size it was in 2003.

“For Mars observers it will then be well worth a look, but it certainly won’t be as spectacular as the hoax email makes out.”

Picture: Robin’s adapted version of a slide from the hoax email puts things straight! (Image: SPA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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