Thursday, 26 August 2010

Oh no, not the annual Mars hoax again

Sayyy....did you somehow manage to see the planet Mars through your windows last night? I have a confession: I missed it. Despite having been told about it late last week, despite getting an email from a well-meaning friend -- no, wait, TWO email messages -- and despite receiving a text message on my mobile several hours ago. 

I'll spare you the details of the email messages as they were quite long but similar. However, the text message, here it is: "Planet Mars will be brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate (sic) on Aug 27 when Mars comes within 50km of Earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug 27 12.30am. 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." And in order to give some sense of credibility to the message, it was signed off "authoritatively" by the "Dept of Surveying Science & Geomatics, UiTM Perlis."

Listen, people, this is a hoax that has been making its way round and around the Internet every July and August since 2003, seven years ago. It is such a silly story that refuses to go away. It has become quite tiresome to see it repeated ad nauseam every year at about this time.

The last time that Mars was at its closest to Earth in the last 60,000 years was on 27 Aug 2003 and even then, it was 55.7 million km away.

You have to understand just a smattering of astronomical science to know that Mars and Earth move around the sun at different rates (speed) in their own orbital planes. Sometimes, the planets are on the same side relative to the sun and sometimes, the planets are on different sides of the sun. So there are times when Earth and Mars are close together and there are times when the two planets are far apart. Their closest approaches occur approximately every 26 months (what this means is that for every revolution that Mars makes around the sun, Earth makes about two revolutions or thereabouts) and therefore, their relative close proximity is not a rare event; it will happen again in March 2012. It was just that in Year 2003, the two planets had been at their relative closest in the last 60,000 years.

Right now, Mars is so far away, a very distant 318 million km from Earth, that it's hardly visible in the night sky. In all probability, you'd need a pair of binoculars to see the planet before it sinks below the horizon....IF you know at all exactly where to look for it.

And why only at 12.30am? Why not 11.30pm or 1.30am? It's crazy, illogical and a stretch of the imagination. The common heavenly bodies are not something that appear suddenly in the night sky, like the way you switch on a light bulb in the dark. Because of the vast distance of space, they creep up on you very slowly. Provided that the sky is clear, you would have time to see them slowly appear and disappear over a period of years, months or days, never instantaneously.

Another astronomical nonsense: if Mars is meant to appear as large as the full moon, it needs to come as close as 766,000 km to us, which will never happen. To put this into perspective, that's about twice the average distance between Earth and our own Moon. In fact, if any space object of Mars' dimension (except our own Moon) were to come this near to Earth, whether it be 50 km or 755,000 km, it would be time for us to panic and not marvel at its close proximity.

Note: Wikipedia has an entry dedicated to this Mars hoax. Read it here.

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