Mars or Your Anus — Which is Bigger?

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Filed under: Urban Legends

Mars will be NOT be huge this August
May 29, 2009

c068mars-atmosphere2-200Can an urban myth be galactic in its silliness?

Meet the story of giant Mars, coming this August to a night sky near you.

The myth appears in an e-mail that is circulating around the Internet like a comet. It promises that on Aug. 27, Mars will be so close to Earth it will look as big as the full moon. It will be the night of two moons — one white and one red.

“Share this with your children and grandchildren,” the e-mail message says. “NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN.”

Astronomers, hearing this or reading this, can only sigh. They’re confronting the celestial version of the story of how Mikey of the Life cereal ads exploded after eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda. It’s an urban legend.

“It just goes around and around the world,” said Ridgefield astronomer Heidi Hammel. “Every year, I get e-mails on this.”

“I’ve had someone who is really into science ask me about it, ”said Michael Bakich,senior editor of Astronomy magazine.

The genesis of this myth begins in August 2003, when Mars really was closer to the Earth that in had been for thousands of years — about 35 million miles away.

That meant that Mars, which ordinarily looks like a bright red star in the sky, looked brighter and redder than normal.

At the time, someone wrote that if you looked at Mars with a 75x telescope, it would look as big as a full moon in the telescope. Somehow, as that messages passed from computer to computer, the part about needing a telescope was lost or tossed and the myth of a giant Mars was born.

In reality, Mars will not be particularly close to Earth in August, and it will be on the dim side as far as naked-eye astronomy goes.

“It will actually be quite faint,” said Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.

But because humans have always been fascinated by Mars, and because the level of basic scientific literacy in this country is not overwhelmingly high, people excitedly pass the story on.

No one stops to think that if Mars got close enough to look like a full moon in the night sky, it would mean it had strayed far beyond its normal orbit and way too close for comfort.

It would probably mean the end of the world as we know it.

“It would really mess things up,” Bakich said.

In 2018 Mars will be close to Earth again. Expect the myth of the giant Mars to be around for that date.

“Even then it won’t look like a full moon,” Hammel said. “It will look like it always does — like a bright red star.”

photo: via