This past summer a widely circulated e-mail announced that Mars was passing extremely close to Earth and promised in shouting letters that "NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN." The only problem: It wasn't true.
In astronomy, as with just about every topic, the Internet has become a reliable source of unreliable urban myths, hoaxes, distortions, and mistakes. Many of the most hysterical postings warn of Armageddon-type encounters with comets or asteroids; the current doomsday craze warns of a deadly asteroid strike in 2046. One particularly far-fetched note claims that the sun will blow up within six years.
The Mars mailing falls into the more benign category of recycled news. If the story of a close encounter with Mars sounds familiar, that's because the event really did happen—in 2003. That summer, the Red Planet was brighter than at any time in the past 59,620 years and, true enough, the brightest it will be during the lifetime of anyone now living.
Then Earth quickly sped away, leaving Mars a dim object that spent much of last year lurking invisibly near the sun.
Now reality is catching up with the Internet's error: Earth is making another swing past Mars this year, although the
THE SKY THIS MONTH
The Triangulum galaxy (M33), a lovely face-on spiral, is nearly overhead at 10 p.m., with little interference from moonlight.
Venus, growing brighter, meets the crescent moon in the evening sky. The pretty twosome sets about 2 and a half hours after the sun.
Mars is at opposition, out all night. Because of its oval orbit, it actually makes its closest approach to Earth one week earlier.
Saturn, dominating the dim constellation Cancer, now rises before 11 p.m.
The nearly full moon meets Mars.
The Leonid meteor shower, sometimes a spectacular display of shooting stars, battles with light from the almost-full moon.