We are still getting phone calls asking about Internet reports and rumors of a sudden and extraordinary appearance by the planet Mars tomorrow (Aug. 27). Faithful blog readers already know the Mars hubbub is a hoax, or at least a weird disortion of two-year-old news. We wrote about it here on Aug. 2.
The great rumor-killing Website snopes.com has written about it, too. To read it, click here.
But since the rumors are still floating around out there, here's a repeat of our Aug. 2 posting.
Aug. 2, 2005: Stories and emails - as breathless as they are wrong - are zipping through cyberspace this month shouting that Mars is about to make an historic appearance in the night sky. Depending on the version you receive, they say Mars (on or about Aug. 27) will be closer than ever in recorded history, brighter than it will be again for hundreds of years, and bigger and brighter in the sky than the full moon.
I've received an email from a close friend alerting me to this spectacular event. It appeared in a newsletter published by my community association. And it surfaced again this morning in a phone call from a Sun reader who said he'd heard it from two friends. He couldn't figure out how Mars could EVER appear larger than the full moon.
Good for him. It can't. But, like many rumors accelerated and inflated by the re-telling across the Internet, there is a grain of truth here.
First, the very real event that appears to have been the genesis of this goofy Internet rumor occurred two years ago this month. If you weren't paying attention then, you missed it. It's over.
That was an historic "opposition" of Mars. Mars oppositions repeat about every 2.2 years, when Mars, from our vantage point on Earth, is on the "opposite" side of the sky from the sun. As the sun sets in the west, Mars at opposition rises in the east.
Think of it this way (and here I will plagiarize my own story from two years ago): "Earth is the third planet from the sun. Mars is the fourth. "Close" approaches like this one occur when the Earth, circling the sun on an "inside" track, passes directly between the sun and slower-moving Mars."
Oppositions are also the moment when Mars is closest to Earth, because Earth and Mars are briefly on the same side of the solar system. So, as seen from Earth, the red planet looks especially big and bright and, well, red.
Some oppositions are more impressive than others. That's because Mars' orbit around the sun is more elliptical than Earth's. So there are oppositions when Mars is closer than it is for other oppositions. The distances can range from less than 35 million miles to a maximum of about 65 million miles. For the rest of the year, of course, we're much farther apart than that, averaging something like 140 million miles.
In the historic August 2003 Mars opposition, the two planets were a "mere" 34.7 million miles apart. Computer runs at the time suggested that hadn't occurred for nearly 60 thousand years. And it would be 284 more years before anyone saw anything like it again. It was big news at the time.
But that was two years ago. This year, Mars will be at opposition again. But it doesn't occur until Nov. 7 (2.2 years after the 2003 event), and Mars won't be as close as it was in 2003 - about 43.1 million miles this time around.
Of course, that's still pretty darn close as these things go. If skies are clear (this is how I justify this sort of entry in a "weather" blog) it will be a great time to look at Mars through a telescope. Even a decent backyard 'scope should reveal surface markings on the planet and maybe polar ice.
In fact, it's already a good time to see Mars. It's getting bigger and brighter as it moves (or more accurately WE move) toward opposition in November. Mars is rising in the east late in the evening, and popping up earlier each night. By the end of the month it will be rising at 10:30 p.m. EDT.
Update, Aug. 25: Best time to look now may be in the hour before dawn. Mars is almost directly overhead. Look for a bright reddish "star," easily the brightest thing up there at that hour. But don't worry if you miss it. Mars will be an increasingly bright and beautiful presence in the night sky for months to come, and best in late October and early November.
For those who missed it, here is the article we ran TWO YEARS AGO about the 2003 opposition of Mars:
Mars makes an approach, its nearest in 59,619 years