Thursday, July 2, 2009

August rumor swirls around Mars

"Every year about this time, people say to me, 'Gee, I hear Mars is going to get really close to the Earth in August, and it will look as big as the moon,'" says Emory astronomer Horace Dale. "I wish there was something we could do to stamp out this rumor."

The annual Mars hoax began in 2003. In August of that year, the Red Planet came within 34 million miles of the Earth, which is pretty close, in astronomical terms -- and the closest it had been in more than 59,000 years. But even then, it only looked like a large, bright star to the naked eye.

"If you ever look up in the sky and Mars is the size of the moon, then something has seriously gone wrong with the laws of physics," Dale says.

Dale created a Mars Geocentric Distance Calculator, and he now refers people to it when they ask him about the Mars myth. Every 780 days, Mars reaches its synodic period – when it is the closest to Earth during its orbit. Dale's calculator lets you keep track of when the Red Planet is getting closer to Earth, and when it is moving away.

"For all of you that are die-hard Mars fans," Dale says, "first let me say that there is nothing wrong with Mars’ orbit, everything is normal. Even though Mars will not be making a close approach this year, you can see it now early in the morning just above and slightly toward the
south of Venus. Mars will remain predominantly a morning object through October, rising slightly earlier each night. Then by mid-November it will be rising around 11:00pm and getting brighter as it prepares to make its close approach on January 27th, 2010 at a distance of about 67 million miles. While this approach will not be as spectacular as it was in 2003, it is still
worth a look."

(Photo by Horace Dale)

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