Jimmy Westlake: Planets, Perseids and hoaxes
Steamboat Springs — It’s b-a-a-ck! There’s an e-mail called “Two Moons on August 27” that is making its way around the Internet this summer, claiming that the planet Mars is heading for a “once in a lifetime” close approach to Earth on Aug. 27 and will appear as large as the full moon to the naked eye. I wish it were true. If you’ve received this e-mail in your mailbox, don’t get too excited about it. It’s a hoax. It seems a variation of this same e-mail rears its ugly head every summer about this time, and I get lots of phone calls from excited folks wanting to know when and where they can get their “once in a lifetime” view of Mars.
Fact: Mars is about as far away from the Earth this summer as it can possibly be. Believe me, if Mars ever came close enough to the Earth to appear as large as the full moon in our sky, we all would be in very serious peril as the Earth’s orbit would be altered and enormous tides would ravage our seacoasts.
Fortunately, planets don’t go careening off into space like hubcaps spinning off of car wheels. The orbits of Earth and Mars are very stable and predictable. The closest the two planets can ever approach each other is about 35 million miles. Even at that distance, Mars never appears as anything more than a bright, red star to the unaided eye.
Mars and Earth do pass close to each other in their respective orbits about once every 26 months in an event called opposition. The last opposition of Mars occurred Jan. 29. Mars now is approaching its superior conjunction, when it passes behind the sun as viewed from Earth. At a distance of nearly 190 million miles, Mars looks like a rather modest star in the west after sunset, near the much brighter planet Venus.
This isn’t the first time that a Mars hoax has been perpetrated upon the unsuspecting masses. On Oct. 30, 1938, radio personality Orson Wells scared the wits out of thousands of his radio listeners with a theatrical broadcast of a realistic-sounding news account of an invasion of Earth by Martians that belched poison gas and fired deadly ray guns. Unlike this e-mail hoax, his broadcast came with a disclaimer warning listeners that it was only a joke. This summer’s Internet joke is no more real than Mr. Wells’ fictional Martian invasion. If the “Two Moons” e-mail shows up in your in-box, go ahead and put it where it belongs — right in your junk-mail box.
As fate would have it, a spectacular grouping of the planets Venus, Mars and Saturn with the slender crescent moon will be visible on the very night of the peak of our annual Perseid meteor shower. Look due west after sunset Thursday and Friday for the grouping of planets, then stay up after midnight for a dazzling display of shooting stars. Under good conditions, several dozen bright Perseid meteors can be seen streaking across the sky. Naked eye astronomy just doesn’t get much better than this.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published across the world. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper, and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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