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Mars hoax lasts five years

Alachua Astronomy Club
E-mail messages perpetuate the
annual August myth that Mars can
look as big as the full moon.

Does anyone still believe that Mars will look as big as the moon this week? Every year, some folks find a forwarded message in their in-box claiming that on Aug. 27, Mars will be as close as it will ever get until the year 2287. That's totally false, and if you were to go outside expecting a monster Mars tonight, you'd be gravely disappointed. But the funny thing is that there's a germ of truth to the "Great Mars Hoax" - and that it's still worth checking out the night sky.

The viral e-mail got its start in August 2003, when Mars really did have its closest encounter with Earth in human history. The planet was a mere 34.6 million miles away - and the next time it's due to come that close will be on Aug. 29, 2287.

Mars mania ruled during the summer of 2003, but even then, the planet's disk wasn't as big as the moon's disk. That part of the e-mail was a garbled version of the true claim that Mars, when seen through a telescope, would look as big as the full moon does to the naked eye.

The e-mail about August's "Mars Spectacular" has made the rounds every summer since then. I wrote about the return of the Great Mars Hoax two years ago, and if you look at the comments appended to the item, you'll see that the virus is still active.

Fortunately, space-savvy debunkers are still active as well: Jane Houston Jones, an outreach specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has updated her page explaining the Mars e-mail hoax, and you'll find additional reality checks at Snopes.com and the Alachua Astronomy Club's Web site.

The fact is that this is an off year for looking at Mars: Because it takes the Red Planet twice as long as Earth to orbit the sun, close encounters occur every other year. Last year was a good opportunity to see Mars (though not as good as 2003). This year, however, Mars is on the far side of the sun - and is visible only for a short time after sunset.

That doesn't mean it's not worth looking: For the past couple of weeks, Mars has been part of a planetary foursome in sunset skies. If you're incredibly lucky, you can spot three planets - Mercury, Venus and Saturn - just after the sun drops below the horizon, with Mars a little bit above the tight trio. (This sky map provides a guide.)

The star of the show is much higher in the sky: As Houston Jones notes in this month's "What's Up" video podcast, Jupiter and its moons are taking center stage. It's hard to miss Jupiter if you look up into a clear sky after sunset.

If you're more of a morning person, you can catch another "star" before sunrise: Most North American observers will have multiple opportunities this week to see the international space station flying overhead in the predawn hours. Check out NASA's satellite sighting page for times and locations.

Early risers can also enjoy a thin crescent moon in eastern skies on Thursday morning, according to Sky & Telescope's weekly roundup of sky highlights.

Do you still have your heart set on a monster Mars? For now, the closest views of the Red Planet are available via Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter ... or Phoenix Mars Lander ... or the Mars rovers ... or Europe's Mars Express ... or the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mars' next close encounter with Earth won't occur until Jan. 27, 2010. Will the Great Mars Hoax be really, most sincerely dead by then? Stay tuned.