Mars set for a close encounter? Don’t bet on it.



Yes, the August Mars hoax is back.

You may have been alerted via your e-mail that Mars and Earth are scheduled for a close encounter on August 27. I got excited because that is my son’s birthday and he will be visiting. I was going to throw a party to celebrate and was even going to rent a telescope.

Before I invested any money I decided to check with Dr. Lestrade, the resident astronomer at Mississippi State University. No way, he says. That might have been true in 2003, but somehow the rumor mill recirculates the bogus announcement each August.

Actually, “hoax” is the wrong word, unless some joker out there is spreading it knowingly (quite possible). It’s an e-mail chain letter claiming that Mars is about to come closer than ever in history and will look as big and bright as the full Moon with the naked eye. If your well-meaning great-aunt or your cousin’s brother-in-law’s dog hasn’t sent it to you yet, it’s probably just a matter of time.

Oh gee, I sent it to everyone I know. Now I’ve got to write them back and tell them not to set their alarm for 12:30 a.m. to watch the “close encounter.”

What’s going on is this. Back in 2003 (that’s 2003 with a “3” on the end, folks), Mars had an especially favorable opposition, coming close enough to Earth to appear 25 arcseconds wide. I’m not sure what that means. Moon and Mars

Back then, someone e-mailed someone else pointing out that at a magnification of 75× in a telescope, Mars would appear as big in the eyepiece (½° wide) as the Moon does unmagnified. True enough. Dr. Lestrade said any planet will look like that through a telescope.

But two things happened, as often do with chain letters. It got rewritten bit by bit to improve the story as it got passed around, so that the “75×” was downplayed or even left out. And the chain letter kept going and going long after August 2003 was history.

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