The Mars-moon email hoax

Astronomy blog for the week ending February 12, 2011

Now seems to be a great time to warn everyone about a hoax. It’s not the kind that takes your money. But if your time is valuable, you should know the real deal.

About every two years, Mars and Earth are pretty close to each other. The close call isn’t at exactly the same distance each time. In August 2003, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in thousands of years.

In 2003, someone sent someone else an email about that. The message claimed Mars would look as big as the full moon. That sounds exciting, so the email got forwarded to numerous other people.

The claim was phony. If Mars ever takes up as much sky as the full moon, we’re going to have trouble. There would have to be a great disturbance in the solar system to cause the planets’ orbits to change radically.

The time for that great apparition came and went. The email went away–for a while. Mars was close to Earth again in November 2005 and the email started going around again. It said mostly the same thing, but someone changed a few things so it didn’t sound two years out of date.

The next two Earth-Mars close calls were in December 2007 and January 2010. It wasn’t a surprise anymore to astronomers who know better when they began hearing from people who wanted to know about Mars looking so big and needing to be told to expect otherwise. Sky & Telescope tried to debunk the myth each time.

The next version caught astronomers by surprise. The big change was its timing. It was in the summer of 2010 when we weren’t expecting it. It talked about Mars being so close again in August that year. Actually, the next close call won’t be until March 2012.

Just the same, people who are prone to believing everything they read talked it up and forwarded it to everyone they knew. You know the type: their idea of verifying the information is nothing more than reading the message again and making sure the forward came from someone they know. If you are the type, I hope I’m telling you something that makes you a better person.

I’m bringing up the Mars email hoax now because the red planet is on the other side of the sun. It’s about as far as it can get from Earth and you can’t see it in the sun’s glare. There’s no promise of a spectacular visual. I hope everyone is least prone to believing the false and most ready to contemplate the facts.

Mars can never look as big to us as the full moon. It’s simply too far away. But those close calls are good times to look at the planet through a telescope. If that’s exciting, make a note about Mars for next year and remember not to mindlessly forward any incorrect email about it to everyone you know.