Stargazing - 08.03.12
The planet Mars is low in the southwest at sunset this month, and looks like a modestly bright orange star.
Every August, an Internet rumor claims that Mars will look as bright as the full Moon, but it’s not true.
It may be the first enduring astronomical myth of the Internet age. Every August, emails, blogs, tweets, and other electronic communications report that Mars will suddenly look as big as the full Moon.
If you see that message, please ignore it — it just isn’t so. Mars is low in the southwest at sunset this month, and looks like a modestly bright orange star. It’s a pretty sight, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The rumor started in 2003, when Mars passed closest to Earth in about 60,000 years. The planet was brighter than during most close approaches, but only by a bit.
At the time, an astronomy publication noted that, through a small telescope, Mars would look as large as the full Moon does to the unaided eye. Yet to the eye alone, Mars itself would remain a star-like point of light. Unfortunately, the story got garbled, then it got spread, then it got to be a pain in the neck. Now, it’s become an electronic myth — one that pops up every August.
What’s also about to pop up is the next Mars rover. It’s scheduled to land on Mars on Sunday night, inside a wide crater that may have been filled with water in the distant past. Rock layers at the base of a mountain in the crater’s middle may record that watery era. The nuclear-powered rover will spend two years or longer studying those layers and other formations in the crater — telling us whether conditions on Mars were once comfortable for life.