ORONO, Maine — An e-mail circulating on the Web says Mars will look as large as the moon during August, and will be so bright that it will look like there are two moons in the night sky.
“It’s a hoax,” said Alan Davenport, director of the University of Maine’s Jordan Planetarium. “It keeps coming around every August. It will say that Mars is going to be as big as the moon.”
The Internet hoax began in 2003 when Mars was as close to the Earth as it had been in 60,000 years, Davenport said, adding that it somehow continues to resurface in people’s in-boxes each July and August.
“This hoax started with a big exaggeration of that event,” Davenport said Monday.
On Aug. 28, 2003, Mars was “about as close as it can be to the Earth at a distance of 34.6 million miles,” which made for good viewing, he said in an e-mail. “The last time the two planets were this close or closer was 57,617 B.C.”
The false information that is circulating on the Internet uses the 2003 data but deletes all dates to make it seem current, Davenport said.
There are times that Mars is big in the sky, but it happens irregularly and the planet basically just appears brighter, he said. “The appearance of Mars is usually very unimpressive because of its size.”
In fact, the two planets’ orbits will not be relatively close — 35.8 million miles — again until July 27, 2018. Even at that distance, Mars will never appear as big as the moon, Davenport said.
These “distances dwarf our distance to the Moon of 240 thousand miles, which is why Mars will never be that big in our sky,” he said in the e-mail. “If the message says it will, it’s a hoax.”
Hoaxes are nothing new in the world of astronomy, Davenport noted, listing as examples the 1982 “Jupiter effect” hoax regarding the alignment of planets, the 2000 Y2K scare, and an apocalyptic event predicted to occur on Dec. 21, 2012.
“The Jupiter effect was the last apocalypse that we missed,” he said, adding that the next one predicted by conspiracy theorists is the 2012 event.
“Everybody wants to believe there are forces out there we don’t know about,” Davenport said.
A presentation that walks people through the thinking behind the 2012 event is scheduled to open at the Jordan Planetarium in October, he said.
What the hoax e-mail has done is spark an interest in people to look toward the sky, according to Davenport.
“Do not despair,” he said. “This August there is a nice group of planets to observe in the evening. Venus can be seen every evening setting in the west after sunset, and it is the brightest of all the planets, so [it is] visible before darkness is complete. After dark, after 9:30 p.m., the sky will dim and the modest light of Mars can be seen.”
Those who want to take a better look at the solar system can take advantage of free telescope viewings Friday and Saturday evenings at the Jordan Observatory on campus. The viewings are offered on nights the sky is clear. Those interested should check on the night’s schedule by calling the observatory hot line at 581-1348 after 7 p.m.