Radville, SK -
A certain e-mail has been popping up in inboxes the past couple of months claiming that Mars will be closer to Earth than usual, and the Red Planet will appear as large as the full moon in late August, an extremely rare event that "no one alive today will ever see again". Unfortunately, there is little truth to this claim. The funny part is, it started out truthfully enough.
The e-mail originated in 2003. In that year there was a rare astronomical event. Mars did in fact come closer to Earth than it had in approximately 50,000 years, coming within about 56 million km of Earth. Mars appeared roughly 6 times larger and 85 times brighter than it usually does, but it still just looked like a big red star (without the twinkle). This is where truth and non-truth get mixed up.
This is a snippet from one of these aforementioned e-mails:
"The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles (55,763,108 km) of Earth and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky. It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide. At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye."
Whether by accident or by design, there was a large space between "at a modest 75-power magnificiation" and the rest of the sentence, which seemed to imply that Mars would appear as large as the Moon with the naked eye, when in reality Mars would appear that large when viewed through a telescope.
As the e-mails travelled through cyber space, they were altered and edited until some had no mention of telescopes at all. And it seems that as the years pass, the myth gets bigger and bigger. Some e-mails now include detailed Powerpoint slide presentations.
The fact is, the Moon is about 385,000 km from Earth. Mars, even at its closest, is 144 times further away than that, so there is no way that Mars could ever appear as large as the Moon. And I don't think we'd want it to get that close. It would probably wreak some pretty alarming gravitational havoc.
Right now Mars is visible only in the early morning, along with Venus. Saturn is visible just at dusk, but Jupiter truly is the King of the Heavens this summer, reigning supreme in the night sky as a bright white star.