August 21, 2008

The Moon and Mars, together at last (NOT!)

The email message from a friend showed up in my Inbox Wednesday night. It was direct and to the point:
27th Aug: the whole world is waiting: Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will culminate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65 million miles from earth. Be sure to watch the sky.

On Aug. 27 at 12:30 a.m. it will look like the earth has 2 moons. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287.

Share this with your friends as NO ONE ALIVE TODAY will ever see it again.
So, of course, the first thing I did was take some pictures of the moon, mostly hiding behind clouds. Then I went to the Internets to see what the fuss is all about.

Some fuss. It's not exactly a hoax, but more like an old story. Don't bother trying to spot Mars and the Moon next Wednesday night: you'll be five years too late. debunks the email that will probably turn up in your Inbox this week:
This was roughly accurate in 2003, when this message first began circulating online. It was not accurate when the identical text circulated again in 2005, nor when it reappeared for another go-around in 2006, nor when it cropped up again in 2007.

The "Mars Spectacular" or "Close Encounter" described in the email came and went in 2003. Period. On August 27 of that year, the orbital paths of Earth and Mars brought the two planets to within 34.65 million miles of one another -- closer than at any other time in the past 50,000 years. Though Mars never actually appeared "as large as the full moon to the naked eye" (as claimed in the email), the red planet did vividly dominate the night sky for a time, making 2003's close encounter a once-in-a-lifetime event indeed for astronomers, space enthusiasts, and ordinary observers alike.

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