Mars rumors loom large on the Web

August 27, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Experts are calling it "Mars malarkey."

A breathless e-mail that's been ricocheting through cyberspace all summer proclaims, in some versions, that on Aug. 27 -- today -- the planet Mars "will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye," and that "no one alive today will ever see this again."

Astronomers say poppycock. They've blasted away at the rumors in Web postings on science.nasa.gov, skyand telescope.com, badastronomy .com and the rumor-busting site snopes.com.

First, without magnification in a telescope, Mars can never appear as large as a naked-eye full moon. It's always too far away to look like more than a very bright star.

Second, the e-mail appears to be based on an event two years ago. On Aug. 27, 2003, Earth orbited within 35 million miles of Mars, providing stargazers with a beautiful view for many weeks.

The truth is that Earth and Mars swing close to each other every 2.2 years. And they are about to do it again.

Mars is already very bright and hard to miss. It's rising nightly at about 11 p.m. The best time to see it is in the hour or two before dawn, when it is high overhead.

It's the brightest thing up there and unmistakable with its amber glow, even at its current distance of about 64 million miles from Earth.

It will rise earlier and draw closer each night this fall until it reaches "opposition" on Nov. 7, when it will rise in the east as the sun sets in the west. By then, Mars will be at its closest since 2003, just 43 million miles away, and even bigger and more brilliant than it is today.

Net surfers snookered by the bogus e-mail should visit the Web site of NASA's twin Mars rovers for a really close look. Spirit and Opportunity are still exploring the surface 19 months after landing. They're studying rocks and snapping pictures, including movies of dust devils swirling across the Martian plain.

Visit marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov.

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