Friday, September 22

SCIENCE&HEALTH: Red planet approaching


Mars e-mail hoax raises false hope for amateur stargazers

Those who are expecting Mars to appear as large as the moon to
the naked eye when it comes closer to Earth this year may just be
the victims of an old prank.

Actually the Earth and Mars were as close to each other as they
have ever been in recorded history since two years ago, in August
2003.

Mars has come close to earth again, and while some may have
gotten some inaccurate information about how close the red planet
has come, stargazers in Los Angeles may get a better show this
month than even two years ago.

An “eRumor” has been circulating around college
Internet circles since June 2005 claiming Mars will be closer to
Earth this year than at any time in the last 5,000 years.

Subject lines for the e-mail have been as simple as “Mars
Viewing” and as intriguing as “Mars not to miss in
August.”

“The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars
comes to within 34,649,589 miles of Earth,” the e-mail
reads.

The e-mail advises readers to make sure the amazing sight is not
missed by their grandchildren.

Experts say, however, that while the planet will be close to
Earth this week, the claims made in the e-mails are scientifically
impossible.

“Back in 2003, someone must have written the e-mail but
forgot to put the year on it. It took a long time to spread”
said Jessica Lu, a graduate astrophysics student and planetarium
presenter.

Although viewers are two years late for the closer view of Mars,
they may be in store for an even more impressive show this
week.

At UCLA’s planetarium, presenters and astronomy students
are preparing a special Mars event for Wednesday evening.

“We are planning an event similar to what we did in 2003.
All of the telescopes we own will be pointed at Mars for visitors
to see,” said Emily Rice, coordinator for the event on
Wednesday.

Visitors to the planetarium will be treated to a Mars
presentation starting at 7 p.m. and then a viewing of the red
planet from one of the many UCLA telescopes on the roof of the Math
Sciences Building.

Inside the dome of the planetarium, there will be a short
description of what Mars is like. Visitors will learn about the
terrain, evidence of water, and the possibility for past life on
Mars.

At the telescope viewing, visitors will be able to see the
methods and technologies students use to study astronomy.

“Our 24-inch telescope, which has a camera rather than an
eye piece, will be taking pictures of Mars … with filters, so
that by the end of the night we can create a color composite of
Mars,” Rice said.

While the hoax e-mail said Mars would be as big as the moon to
the naked eye, scientists say we don’t have the technology to
view Mars that finely.

“From telescopes on earth, you can’t see that much
detail from Mars, it is just too small. The Hubble telescope in
space can’t even see that much detail,” said Art
Huffman, senior lecturer for the UCLA Department of Physics and
Astronomy.

In 2003, the two planets did get closer than they had been in
60,000 years ““ about 35 million miles closer. By tracking the
placement of Mars in the sky, astronomers can track where the two
planets are in their individual orbits around the sun. According to
the NASA web site, the two planets are not going to be as close as
they were in 2003 until 2287.

“Back in 2003, for observers in the Northern Hemisphere
Mars rose low in the night sky. Now, this November Mars will be
higher in the sky at the opposition date and rise high all through
November,” Huffman said.

To the amateur stargazer, Mars’ appearance in August 2003
would not have been noticeably larger or brighter than it is during
the fall when Mars is visible to the Northern Hemisphere.

“Even though Mars is further away this year, it will be
higher in the sky,” Rice said. The new angle decrease the
muting of the stars due to the lights of the city, and increases
the telescopes’ ability to catch Mars in their lenses.

For more information, visit the UCLA planetarium Web site at
www.astro.ucla.edu/planetarium.

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