the red planet mars, a player in the two moons hoax
The two moons hoax about Mars looming large is a harmless e-mail more appropriate for April Fools Day than Aug. 27. Photo credit: cc Thinkstock

“Two moons on August 27″ is the subject line of an e-mail that has been circulating recently. The Two moons on August 27 e-mail is about the planet Mars drawing close to Earth as the two planets orbit the sun. This proximity, the e-mail says, will make Mars so large that it will appear to look like another moon in the sky. Some people with a basic understanding of the universe know that two moons in 2010 are impossible. But many people who don’t just might believe the two moons hoax. Ironically, on Aug. 27, 2010, Mars is about as far away from earth as it gets as the two planets promenade around their star.

The two moons hoax

The “Two moons on August 27″ e-mail first started circulating in the summer of 2003. Back then, the planet Mars was closer to the Earth than it had ever been since humans started practicing astronomy. Seven years ago, Mars came to within 34.6 million miles of Earth. The Red Planet won’t get that close for another 60,000 years. Snopes reports that at the time scientists said Mars would be the brightest object in the night sky next to the Moon. This gave people the mistaken impression that Mars would look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. The two moons hoax started circulating with the dramatic conclusion that “no one alive will ever see it again.”

The Red Planet on the far side of the sun

The two moons hoax has reemerged at a time when Mars is far, far away. Jimmy Westlake at the Steamboat Pilot writes that Mars is approaching what is called in astronomical terms its “superior conjunction,” when it travels to the opposite side of the sun from the Earth. From about 190 million miles away, Mars looks like a faint star in the west after sunset, near the the planet Venus, which shines like a beacon. About once every 26 months, Mars and Earth pass close to each other in their orbits in what astronomers call “perihelic opposition.” The last opposition occurred Jan. 29 this year when the two planets were a mere 35 million miles away.

Venus and Mars are all right tonight

Mars has two moons of its own, called Phobos and Deimos. The Earth’s moon, the Christian Science Monitor reports, will appear to be about 400 times larger than Mars in the night sky on Aug. 27. In astronomical terms, Mars will have an diameter of about 4.4 arcseconds. The moon will have an apparent diameter of about 29.5 arcminutes. Because most people don’t have a clue about arcseconds and arcminutes, a good way to understand the relationship is as simple as the fact that 29 minutes is a whole lot longer than 4 seconds. But even so, if the skies are clear, Mars will join Venus, and Saturn in a group called a “conjunction” just above the western horizon at nightfall.



Steamboat Pilot:

Christian Science Monitor:

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