The great August Mars hoax is an annual tradition. Come summer, inboxes around the world start to fill with the same old messages claiming that on August 27, Mars will come so close to the Earth that it will appear as large as the full moon in the night sky. This year, the hoax itself has received a lot more attention than usual, which makes the University of Toronto Libraries Department‘s celebration of the “closest approach of Mars in recorded history” even more embarrassing (the error was fixed this afternoon).
The hoax started in 2003, when Mars came within sixty million kilometres of the Earth—the closest it had been in fifty thousand years. The original email correctly stated that the event would take place on August 27, 2003, and that “at a modest seventy-five-power magnification” Mars would look “as large as the full moon to the naked eye” (which is technically true, if you’re using a telescope). But somehow, in a flurry of forwarding, the date and the telescope were left out, and the hoax has continued to bounce around ever since. Barring some sort of massive cosmic catastrophe, Mars will never look the same size as the moon, even at its closest approach.
If you want to take a look at Mars in the sky this August, NASA recommends going out just before sunrise on August 15 or 16. If you try to find the red planet in the sky on August 27, you won’t see it, as it’ll be nearly two hundred and fifty million kilometres away and invisible to the naked eye.
A hat tip to the perceptive grad student who pointed out the University of Toronto’s mistake.