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The Red Planet isn't coming
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


August 10, 2005

Fooled by an Internet hoax, many Americans are planning to grab lawn chairs and watch for Mars to be as big as the moon in the Aug. 27 night sky.

"Share this with your children and grandchildren," says the e-mail fueling the hoax. "NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN."

At least one magazine, Backpacker, was tricked into publishing a brief news item about the event. Headlined "Mars Spectacular," it cited the Aug. 27 viewing in its September 2005 issue. Editors at the publication did not respond to questions about the article.

Kevin Jung, president of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Amateur Astronomical Association, posted a warning about the hoax on the group's main Web page in response to a large number of inquiries.

"Even my aunts were asking about it," Jung said.

It was actually Aug. 27, 2003, when Mars was at its closest distance to Earth in 60,000 years, said Todd Bayer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The next such close encounter will be in 2287.

Mars was bright in 2003, but it didn't look as big as a full moon, Bayer said. For that to occur, Mars would have to be millions of miles closer to Earth.

"That would be scary," Bayer said.

Jane Platt, a spokeswoman for the Jet Propulsion Lab, said her friends had mentioned the e-mail hoax and possibility of an August alignment. She sent them to to debunk the myth. The Web site, an "urban legends reference," lists the myth in the "science" section, near the bottom.

Mars will pass close to Earth this year, but not until Oct. 30, when it will appear smaller compared to the moon than it did in 2003, according to NASA reports.

Even so, October's encounter could be a better show for amateur astronomers, Jung said. Mars will be higher in the sky, with less atmospheric interference.

August will be an active month for Mars research, however, as the lab plans an Aug. 10 launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The craft will be responsible for high-resolution imaging of the planet's surface and other experiments, Bayer said.

"It's like a camera, but it sees in many, many fine gradations of color," Bayer said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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