Sep 01

September 2005

Whats Up in the Sky September 2005

Mars myth is online malarkey

When I was in college I read a book called “Chariots of the Gods,” which claimed that certain religious artifacts and cultural customs were proof that we had been visited by extraterrestrials in UFOs. I remember one example was the Nazca plain in Peru with its patterns of perfectly straight lines and giant drawings that can be recognized only from high above the ground.

Amazing, I thought.

Astounding, I thought.

Why didn’t I ever learn about this stuff in my high school science classes? I thought.

Then, a few years later, I watched a program that “explained” the claims made in the book. It showed an elderly woman on the Nazca plain could create giant patterns and perfectly straight lines by dragging her heel in the dry soil. Every example used in the book was similarly discounted.

Lately I have been asked by a number of people about a story that has been circulating on the Internet. Supposedly, on Aug. 27 Mars looked “as large as the full moon to the naked eye.” The story went on to say this was supposed to be the “closest approach between the two planets in recorded history” and “the next time Mars may come this close is in 2287.”

First, there is no way Mars will ever appear as large as the full moon. It is too far away.

I think I know how such a rumor could get started. If you view Mars through a moderately sized telescope at about 90 power, the image in the telescope will appear as large as the moon looks to the naked eye.

However, even this is misleading. If you compare the size of Mars’ image to the size of your field of view in the telescope, it is not the same as comparing the moon to the entire sky. If you really want to know what Mars will look like, cut about two centimeters off an empty paper towel tube, hold it up to your eye and look at the full moon.

Second, regarding the rarity of this event, Mars was closer to Earth (and therefore appeared larger) on Aug. 27, 2003 — perhaps the source of the date listed in the Web rumor. This year’s closest approach will occur on Oct. 29.

Also, we won’t have to wait too long for another good view. In December 2007 it will appear almost as large. And the next time Mars will get this close is in 2018, not 2287.

So, file this under “don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” When it comes to astronomy, the truth is always up in the sky.

For more information on this year’s Mars encounter go to skyandtelescope.com and click on “Mars Malarkey.”


Here are this month’s viewing highlights:

  • All month: Watch Venus and Jupiter in the west one hour after sunset. They will be closest on Sept. 1; then Jupiter sinks into the sun’s glare as the month progresses. What’s the last day that you see Jupiter?
  • Sept. 1: Moon between Mercury and Saturn in east one hour before sunrise
  • Sept. 3: New moon
  • Sept. 4: Mercury close to star Regulus in east 45 minutes before sunrise
  • Sept. 6: Don’t miss spectacular gathering of Jupiter, Venus, moon and the star Spica
  • Sept. 11: First-quarter moon very low in the south at sunset
  • Sept. 17: Full moon (harvest moon; rises less than 30 min later next few nights)
  • Sept. 21: Moon between Mars and Pleiades; low in east around 11 p.m.
  • Sept. 22: first day of Autumn
  • Sept. 25: Third-quarter moon; unusually high in sky at sunrise
  • Sept. 28: Crescent moon near Saturn in the east, 90 minutes before sunrise

Peter Burkey is president of the Shoreline Amateur Astronomical Association and has been an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer for 25 years. He also taught astronomy at Fennville High School from 1981 to 2003.

Peter Burkey – SAAA President