If history is any indicator, at some point over the next month, many people will receive an email informing them that on August 27 they’ll get a great view of Mars. The email will go on to describe how the neighboring planet will approach Earth and appear as large and close as a full moon.
The email includes the message in all capital letters, "No one alive will ever see this again", which in itself is likely to garner interest and grow enthusiasm. After all, how exciting is it to be able to see such a close viewing of Mars because the event is so rare?
Unfortunately, this cool event is not going to happen. If you get this email or see it on Facebook, it is a hoax. On August 27 Mars will not be in any remotely close proximity to Earth as the email describes.
What Does the Email Say?
Over the years the message is tweaked a bit, but the overall theme remains the same. Titles associated with the hoax include, “"Mars Spectacular” and "Two moons on 27 August or The Red Planet is about to be spectacular!"
In 2010 the message said:
"Planet mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on August 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287".
Fast-forward to 2015 and the date remained August 27, Mars was anticipated to be “within 34,649,589 miles (55,763,108 kilometers) of Earth” and the planet would look “as large as the full moon to the naked eye.” 1
This email hoax quickly became so widespread that in 2005 NASA sent out a message to inform the public of the false claims. The agency released another message on Aug. 25, 2010, opening with the phrase "it spreads, it mutates, it refuses to die". The announcement continues to explain that Mars' position on August 27, 2010 will be 314 million km from Earth, "about as far away as it can get" (NASA). 3
Origins of this Email Hoax
You might be wondering where this all started. This email hoax has circulated every year in the month of August since 2002 or 2003 (depending on which source you read – the general consensus seems to be 2003) when Mars came within 56 million km from Earth, which has been established to be the closest the planet had been in 60,000 years.
While the 2003 viewing was exciting and did allow for a closer than usual perspective of Mars, even at this proximity, Mars was still nowhere near the size of a full moon. (In fact, Live Science reported last year, Venus was actually more visible). 4 At that time, Mars was approximately six 6 times bigger and 85 times brighter in the sky than it normally would have been.
According to Snopes:
“Although Mars' proximity to Earth in August 2003 (referred to as a perihelic opposition) was a rare occurrence, the red planet comes almost as near to us every 15 to 17 years. To the unaided observer, Mars' appearance in August 2003 wasn't significantly larger or brighter than it is during those much more common intervals of closeness,” adding, “Not until 2018 will our view of Mars be similar to the one that was available in 2003, and it won't be until the year 2287 that Mars will come closer to Earth than it did back in 2003.”
Over the past thirteen the hoax has evolved to sound even more enticing and convincing and, as a result, people continue to forward and circulate the claim. Sadly, many will find themselves sorely disappointed. While hoaxes are commonplace on the web, this one seems to hold a special fascination.
Taking It to Social Media
In more recent years, the email hoax has made its way onto Facebook. In 2015 an image, portraying two moon-sized celestial bodies over a temple or church, accompanied the myth of a close encounter with Mars. While email is fast, social media is faster. With the ease of “like” and “share” buttons, it’s a lot easier to send this one soaring through cyberspace to create a viral hoax. It would not be surprising to see this one pop up on Facebook or other social media networks this year.
Beware of Potential Malware
In past years some of the emails being circulated had a PowerPoint presentation attachment linked to the message. If one of these is received, be careful not to download it. Even if the email comes from someone you know well and trust. Any attachment is risk for malware which could turn a simple disappointing hoax into a more serious computer problem. As for social media, there are many ways malware can make it onto one's computer or other device and a hoax is the perfect disguise to do it.
In general, it is a good idea to search out information received via email. If the news is really as spectacular as it sounds other legitimate news sources, official agencies and blogs will be writing on the event. In addition, websites such as Snopes.com are good for setting apart truth from hoax. All you need to do is plug a few keywords into your favorite search engine and, if the claim is legitimate, you'll get many current returns documenting the details.
Sorry to say we won't see Mars up close on Aug. 27, 2016. If this message pops into an email box or on a social media feed over the next few weeks, do not be tempted to forward or share it to further spread the hoax. As long as people continue to forward these kinds of hoaxes, at the rate it is going, the email (or whatever method of electronic messaging the future will bring) will still be circulating 60,000 years from now when the next event occurs.
And, at that time, Mars still won’t be as big as a full moon.