The big Mars hoax


Yep. It’s happening once more. By email, twitter, facebook. On August 27, 2013 – Mars will appear as large as a full moon in Earth’s sky.

SEE MARS AS LARGE AS THE FULL MOON ON 27TH AUGUST 2013. Should be spectacular! Truly a once in a lifetime experience!

Can it possibly be true?

No. It can’t. The email and photo are perpetuating a hoax that rears its crazy head every summer. The hoax has circulated every summer since 2003. Mars can never appear as large as a full moon as seen from Earth, and Mars will not even be at its brightest in August of 2013. In fact, right now, Mars is relatively faint and inconspicuous in the predawn sky, shortly before the sun comes up.

In August of 2013, Mars appears in the eastern sky during the wee hours before dawn. It’s not far from another planet, a brighter planet, Jupiter. Jupiter is the second-brightest planet; Venus is the brightest planet Mars sometimes achieves a brightness close to that of Jupiter, but, even so, Mars always looks like a star, with nowhere the size or brilliance of the full moon.

As seen from Earth, in months when Mars does appear side by side with a full moon (and, again, that’s not happening in August 0f 2013, or in any month this year), Mars’ diameter is about 1/140th the diameter of the full moon.

You would have had to line up 140 planet Mars – side by side – to equal the moon’s diameter.

So how did this rumor of Mars-as-big-and-bright-as-the-moon get started? It started with an actual event, in 2003. On August 27 of that year, Earth and Mars came very slightly closer than they’d been in nearly 60,000 years. Our two worlds, center-to-center, were less than 35 million miles apart – just over three light-minutes apart. The last people to come so close to Mars were Neanderthals. Astronomy writers like me had a field day that year, talking about Mars at its closest. Was it a spectacular sight? Yes! It looked like a dot of flame in the night sky.

Was Mars as big and bright as the moon, even at its closest in 2003? Never.
But the hoax sticks around.

Fireflies and the Cosmos


This video steps you through entries to the astronomy photograph of the year competition. Some amazing entries which show the power of modern cameras and the beauty of the cosmos. The fireflies entry does a amazing job of showing how the sky moves, with a contrast to the randomness to fireflies.

How not to report science



A lesson on how bad journalism is when it comes to science. The inference from this story is that natural causes caused a lot of warming back then, more than carbon-based emissions have today, and hence global warming is irrelevant. Of course a quick glance at the actual scientific paper shows that the journal article authors never made this claim. Yes, the ‘dinosaur methane’ did have the effect of warming the atmosphere. But it did so in a steady rate over 10s of millions of year. It didn’t suddenly jump up over 50 years. There is no reason to suspect the dinosaurs were not killed by the effects of an asteroid collision.