Mars Hoax 2010

HOAX: Two moons 27th August 2010

The annual “Two Moons on Aug 27th” Mars e-mail is circulating again. Alas, the myth is another internet hoax, a best fit for the “liar liar pants on fire” category. Amateur astronomers already know this. This year, for the benefit of everybody else, we do our best to explain why.

A picture is worth a thousand words. See: http://www.astronomy.org.gg/hoax.htm

from astronomy.org.gg - click graphic for source article and image

The photo above is also true to my own experience, as I’ll narrate below.

Wikipedia on the “Mars Hoax” (emphasis mine):

Although nearly all of the claims made in the e-mail are true, the hoax stemmed from a misinterpretation of the third sentence of the second paragraph which states that “At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye”. The message was often quoted with a line break in the middle of this sentence, leading some readers to mistakenly believe that Mars would “look as large as a full moon to the naked eye” when, in reality, this only applies when a telescope with a 75-power magnification is used. This is the most likely source of misinterpretation.

We will never, EVER see a sight even remotely like the faked “two moons” e-mail image from Earth (or from anywhere else in the solar system). And 2010 is not even a particularly good year for telescopic viewing of Mars.

We already had Mars’ 2010 “closest approach” in January . Most non-astronomer citizens never would have noticed it. Phoenix and Bay area residents would probably be unable to see it with the naked eye unless it was an exceptionally clear night.

We actually have mathematical “closest approaches” every other year or so (Mars takes 687 Earth “days” to orbit the sun). Obviously, since both planets orbit the sun, there is always going to be some “closest” distance as the Earth swings round past Mars. That distance is not the same each year because the orbits if the two planets are not quite concentric, but elliptical — not quite perfect circles. Mars’ orbit is quite eccentric for a planet – about 9% longer on the long axis compared to the short dimension.

In 2003, we had the celebrated closest Mars approach “in 60,000 years”. Astronomers would have noticed Mars having an apparent diameter of almost twice its “farthest distance”. This difference doesn’t become readily apparent without a telescope of at least 6″ diameter.

The angular size of the Moon is about 1/2 degree (30 ARC MINUTES). By coincidence our Sun is of the same apparent diameter, which is why we can have perfect lunar eclipses. NASA confirms the angular size of Mars varies from a minimum of 3.4 ARC SECONDS to a maximum of 25.1 ARC SECONDS.

An arc second is 1/60 of an arc minute. Mars never stood a chance of looking close in size to the Moon!

From University of Wisconsin:

Even at its closest approaches Mars seldom appears larger than 26 arc seconds, or about 1/69 the apparent size of the moon.

Some sources compare this to the apparent size of a penny at 500 feet.

We all know from experience the Moon NEVER looks about the size of a penny at 500 feet. The Moon might look more like the size of a basketball at 100 feet. So how could Mars ever look like it was almost the same size? It can’t.

If that isn’t bad enough for backyard astronomers, more math (groan) conspires against us too. Remember that the area of a circle is proportional to the square of the radius. So, a planet of radius 1/2 will only display 1/4 the surface detail of a planet of radius 1, all other things being equal. A planet of radius 1/60 can, at best, display 1/3600 the surface detail of the larger one — not counting the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere!

The 2003 Mars approach was a HUGE disappointment to Bob and me, and we (I) wasted a good deal of money trying to be ready to photograph this highly publicized event.

As actually viewed with the naked eye in 2003, it was hard to tell whether any kind of “disk” of Mars could be made out at all, or if Mars was just a really bright reddish point-source star like Aldebaran. With eye to our telescope eyepiece, we were barely able to see Mars’ polar icecap, but that was all. Bob and I tried to photograph Mars through the 8″ telescope with an expensive SLR camera body, without much success as we were inexperienced in photographing the night sky. Bob did the best job, holding up a “Brownie point and shoot” to the telescope eyepiece.

Our photo looked about like a penny at 500 feet. Copper-red, no surface detail visible at all. Unless you blow up the image (below), Mars looks like a little red dot in a huge black frame. This photo has been published here before. For a better color photo (looks like black-and-white), see also our Mars Elusive post (9-17-2003).

Mars 2003 - photo by Bob Sibley

The next “good” year for viewing Mars will be 2014, and it won’t get as good as 2003 again during our lifetimes.

Alex

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National Geo: Seeking new earths

rocket launch - from National Geographic

rocket launch - from National Geographic

There’s an article of interest in the December 2009 National Geographic, “Worlds Apart: Seeking new earths”. Written for National Geographic by stargazer Timothy Ferris, the article discusses, in lay editorial style, the mission of NASA spacecraft Kepler (the launch image on this page).

Also discussed with excellent graphics is a foldout showing new planets that have been found so far. The newsprint magazine also presents thumbnail concepts of current detection techniques, including subtle changes in parent star luminosity, and doppler wobble.

For those of us who don’t have access to the current old-fashioned subscription magazine (which I prefer), here are current links to the National Geo articles:

The chart covers the 373 found planets (as of when the issue went to press). I didn’t realize we had identified orbiting planets out to 10,000 light years distance. At least one “planet” is really a failed star (17 times Jupiter’s mass) – it should have gone thermonuclear.

Since Andromeda is our nearest neighboring galaxy, some 2.5 million light years distant, the article doesn’t report any discoveries there, and most likely none have been observed. For ET hunters it might be somewhat unsettling to realize that there is no way Earth could be seen from Andromeda with what we consider state of the art technology. Newly launched Kepler will peer out 15 times farther than current sightings, that is, 6,000 lights years distance, as opposed to the current 400.

In that case, where exactly are the host stars for our 373 observations to date? They seem to all be in own Orion Spur of the Milky Way’s  Sagittarius arm. Even Kepler is confining its search area to this spur.

For the seasoned amateur astronomer, there is perhaps not much content we haven’t read elsewhere, at some time or other,  in astronomy magazines and websites. But the National Geo presentation is well-organized, as generations have come to expect from that publication, and well worth our review.

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The Great 2012 Scare – Sky & Telescope

When we wrote our two October postings on the “2012” doom-and-gloomers, we debunked the myth, as many others have done. We also referenced the Sky & Telescope magazine’s impressive articles stating that the world is not going to end in any of the ways the movie or the Nostradamus and Mayan Calendar fetishists are predicting, at least, certainly not as the result of any known astronomical phenomenon expected in that year or century.

And we noted with regret that the S&T magazine’s website was “under construction” and we could not provide the customary link to document our sources.

The S&T editors have rectified that with a new November 11 online article and a couple of PDF downloads, free reprints from their magazine articles. They say:

If your friends and family are worried about the impending disaster — supposedly based on an ancient Mayan prophecy — we have the stuff you need to tell them …

November 11, 2009 | The world won’t end on December 21, 2012, no matter what ancient Mayan prophecies might imply. Noted archaeoastronomer E. C. Krupp explains the cause of this mania in November’s Sky & Telescope. But this issue is no longer available on newsstands, so we’re making Krupp’s article available as a free download.

The link to the article is here: The Great 2012 Scare

You should be able to download the PDF’s for yourself. Should you find the link broken at some future point, just reply to this posting, let me know. I downloaded them for myself and any friends who might want them by e-mail (they’re in my ‘Articles’ folder, Alex). I’ll post the PDF’s myself.

Cheers!

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You Are Here, Part II

The graphic below follows up on yesterday’s article Debunking the “2012″ Myth. The question is: how exactly is a supposed alignment of the sun with the core of the Milky Way supposed to cause catastropic destruction in 2012?

Graphic map of Milky Way. For better detail, click image to link to source page at atlasoftheuniverse.com.

Graphic map of Milky Way. For better detail, click image to link to source page at atlasoftheuniverse.com.

In this graphic, our Sun is depicted as lying behind the Milky Way’s barred core, in the Orion Arm. Ask yourself:  how can I figure out when the Sun would be “aligned” with this bright central region?

Continue reading

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Debunking the “2012” Myth

On November 13, Sony Pictures International is releasing a new doomsday movie, “2012“. It’s about yet another end-of-the-world, Chicken Little “prediction” of the ancient Mayan Calendar (which the Mayans were not actually predicting). The movie will no doubt scare a lot of superstitious or uninformed people, and may even (grin) scare off sales of the Sony Playstation:

from the Sony website

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Mystery Object Tears Star Apart?

Excerpted from the Sky&Telescope posting June 7, 2009, below.  We know that binary star groups sometimes consume one partner with cataclysmic results, so this article should be no surprise. Still, the idea of invisible black holes that can tear a star apart in 200 days is something that boggles the mind:

Update on Hubble Mystery Object

June 7, 2009
by Rachel Courtland, NewScientist.com

Remember the Hubble Mystery Object? In 2006 it steadily brightened, then steadily faded over the course of 200 days total, in a way that resembled no known type of variable object. Even its spectrum was inscrutable, leaving no sign of whether it was a flare on a very faint star in our own Milky Way or some enormous eruption billions of light-years distant.

What was it?
Now you don’t see it, now you do. Something truly in the middle of nowhere — apparently not even in a galaxy — brightened by at least 120 times during more than three months and then faded away.
K. Barbary and others

Now there’s a sign that it was the latter. And one new theory suggests that an odd, wandering, intergalactic black hole tore apart a star of unusual composition … Gaensicke and colleagues propose two scenarios that might explain the object. In one, a carbon-rich star swung too close to an intermediate-mass or heavyweight black hole, which pulled it apart. Some of the material made its way into the black hole, and some was blasted off in a flare that was seen from Earth as SCP 06F6.

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Houston Mega-Dome?

Discovery Mega-Builders: Houston Dome. Click image to explore features.

Discovery Mega-Builders: Houston Dome?

Tonight, the Discovery channel had an interesting “Mega-Builders” segment. You can also watch the segment on their web video.

Mega Engineering
Dome Over Houston

Houston is in peril. The country’s fourth most populous city faces heat, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Only a radical engineering solution will save the city: a massive dome, 1,500 feet high and a mile in diameter, would protect the city.

Despite understandable initial skepticism, the idea has some merit. Building on Buckminster Fuller’s established concepts for the geodesic dome, Discovery advances the idea that a dome over the financial district of Houston could save billions of dollars in hurricane damage, create climate control, minimize the extremes of Gulf weather and humidity, reduce heating and air conditioning costs, and generally reduce the stress of downtown existence.

The technology is not all there, but it’s close. Continue reading

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Summer Solstice

DSC_1844.jpg Potsam and Jetsam ... Click image for larger file.

This photo was taken June 20, 2006. I got around to posting it in Photos that August. It’s not that bad for a photo, and even though the light is interesting, it’s not the kind of photo I normally post to a gallery. I knew there was something special about it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I should have asked Astronomy Mag’s Bob Berman, author of the Strange Universe column. Continue reading

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SETI

Project SETI Certificate - click image for larger view
Project SETI Certificate

I’ve been participating in Project SETI since 2003, when I joined the Cloudy Nights SETI team.

It’s not so much that I expect to be the first to detect signals from ET. In fact, as I’ve often joked, I’d rather that you detect them first, because then I get to stay at home and smoke my pipe, while you get to cope with the demands of the media.

What are the odds? We’ve only been listening for a few decades, hoping to detect coherent signals of any sort rising above the cosmic background noise. If we ever do detect a “signal”, the civilization that sent it might not even be around.  Listening searches might be confined to local areas of interest, such as the Orion Nebula (1500 light years). Mighty “sister galaxy” Andromeda, on the other hand, is some 2.5 million light years distant.
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