It’s become the classic astronomy-themed internet hoax: “On 27 August of whichever year you’re reading this, Mars will be closer to Earth than at any time in the last bajillion years and it will look as big as the Moon!”. I wrote about it in depth last year, after I noticed that it has been running continuously since 2003 (when a real life conjunction of Mars was misinterpreted by the mainstream media). Disappointingly, I have not received a single copy of this year’s version of the hoax. I was quite looking forward to it so that I could show people the chart below, which reveals that position of Mars at 4:20 am on 27 August 2011. Read the notes on the top left and see that Mars is currently over 2AU away. In regular units, that’s over 300 million kilometers away! It’s almost on the opposite side of the Solar System from us!
So no, Mars will definitely not be as big as the full moon in the sky on the evening of the 27th of August this year. However, if you get up really early in the morning any time this month, you will see it just above the horizon, almost vertically beneath the constellation Orion. And if you don’t get out under the stars very often, then it’ll be worth it just so you know you’ve seen another planet with your own two eyes.
So… what’s going on here? When I sat down to write this update, my first thought was disappointment that nobody had sent me a copy of the hoax. My influence must be slipping if nobody wants to share these amazing-yet-false claims with me. But today I see that Frasier Cane of Universe Today is making the exact same complaint. He’s proclaiming that the hoax has died, and that the skeptics have won. Me, I’m not so sure. I think they’re biding their time, waiting for us to relax before unleashing a whole new barrage of astronomy misinformation. You heard it here first!