All posts by C.C. Petersen

The Mars/Moon Hoax Rears its Ugly Head

Well, the hysterical claims are starting up yet again. Yes, it’s the annual Mars/Moon madness again. Only this time, the folks claiming that the Moon and Mars will be the SAME SIZE OMG!!! NEVER AGAIN IN THIS CENTURY!!!! are claiming that on August 27th, 2014, we’ll be treated to a view of the Moon AND Mars both the same size in the sky.  The stories are accompanied with an image that implies they’ll be *thisclose* in the sky.  The whole idea is so screwed up it’s not even close to reality.   But, before I get to work dismantling the latest flight of fancy about this subject, the good news is that there is something neat to see in the sky that night (and indeed, for the next couple of weeks).  I’ll talk about that in a minute (below the jump).

Mars and Saturn appear close together as dots of light in the August 27th, 2014 post-sunset sky. The moon is a very slim crescent close to the horizon.

Mars and Saturn appear close together as dots of light in the August 27th, 2014 post-sunset sky. The moon is a very slim crescent close to the horizon. (Click to get a bigger version.)

Here’s a star chart that I made using Stellarium for the period of time just a few minutes after sunset on the 27th. This shows the sky with indicators for where the Moon and Mars will be. They are roughly 45 degrees apart — nowhere near each other, as it turns out.  So, that immediately puts the lie to the images I’ve seen showing two Full Moons next to each other (apparently one of them is supposed to be Mars). The insets show about how these objects will really look. The Moon will be a very young crescent (NOT FULL, as is shown in some of the graphics I’ve seen). Mars and Saturn will appear as dot-shaped  objects in the twilight. As it get darker, they’ll look brighter (since we won’t be contending with the twilight glow), but by that time, the Moon will have set. The chart doesn’t lie. You can go to Stellarium, download the free program, run it and see for yourself. It’s easy to do. Where did this huge misunderstanding come from? Apparently someone a few years ago misread (or didn’t understand) an article written about an appearance of Mars in the sky in 2003. The article said that if you looked at Mars through a telescope at that time, the image would be magnified 75x (75 times), and that magnification would make Mars look (through the eyepiece) as big as the Full Moon does to the naked eye. So, the article was making a comparison between two objects, one far away viewed in a telescope and the other closeup viewed with the naked eye (that is, without magnification). The writer was attempting to show that the Moon looks big to us (it’s close, so it should), and that Mars is so far away (even at its closest) that we need magnification to make it look as the Full Moon does to our naked eyes.  It was a size-distance comparison. During that time (in 2003), Mars was at a point in its orbit where it was closer to Earth than anytime in 60,000 years. So, as most urban legends go, a whole new meme was born. It’s usually expressed with lousy pictures (doctored in Photoshop), lots of exclamatory material, and a complete conflation of misunderstanding about the difference between a magnified view of something and a naked eye view. Continue Reading

Help Science Research and Education

Check out "Beam Me to Mars", a global shout-out to Mars fundraiser!

Check out “Beam Me to Mars”, a global shout-out to Mars fundraiser!

My friends over at Uwingu have a really cool new fundraiser effort going called “Beam Me to Mars”.  I’m so jazzed by it that I’m taking off my porkpie journalism hat and participating in this global “shout out” to Mars as an avid Red Planet enthusiast.

The idea is this: in exchange for a donation that goes to support science research and education, you can beam a message to the planet Mars on November 28, 2014. That’s the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Mars mission, launched on November 28, 1964.  Everybody’s messages will go to Mars as a stream of transmissi0ns via radio communications.  Uwingu has already amassed an amazing collection of messages from such varied folks as Astronaut Chris Hatfield, Bill Nye, Dr. Maria Zuber, the famous Mars Curiosity “Mohawk” Mars guy Bobak Ferdowski, Dr. Lori Garver, writer Dava Sobel, and many others. I’m adding my message, as well, in my role as CEO of Loch Ness Productions and general Mars enthusiast.

In addition, Uwingu’s Youtube channel will be featuring a neat array of videos from various supporters (I’m adding mine toTHAT  mix, too!), sharing their ideas about missions to Mars and why they support the “Beam Me to Mars” effort. I think this is a pretty snazzy effort, and pleased to see so many other folks hopping on the bandwagon. It’s the sort of effort that really captures the imagination!  I  mean, think of it — YOUR words and message going to Mars!  It takes me back to the days when I played “Missions to Mars” as a little kid.

So, how do you participate?  Go to and select “Beam me to Mars”.  Your message can be as simple as your name, or you can wax philosophical and even include images. You can send as many messages as you want, and prices start at $5.00. You have from now until November 5th,2014 to get your message(s) entered. All the messages will be sent at a rate of a million bits per second to Mars by Uwingu’s “Beam Me” transmission partner, Universal Space Network (a satellite communications provider).  Messages will also be published on Uwingu’s Web page for other Mars fans to see.

So, why am I jazzed about this project?  As a science writer, it has always been my interest to see increases in science and science education. Those things can only make positive contributions to our society. Uwingu’s outreach projects help provide much-needed funding to projects for science education and science research, and I like that. In today’s fiscally dicey times, really good science isn’t getting funded. And, even worse, science education continues to get short shrift.  The founders of Uwingu saw a way to create unique science outreach projects to help fund both. They began with an ongoing exoplanet-naming project, plus their “Name a Crater on Mars” on a special Uwingu map that will be used by the Mars One mission in a few years. “Beam Me to Mars” is a particularly unique opportunity for anybody to send a message to Mars. Up til now, only scientists and engineers could do it.

The other reason that I’m psyched about “Beam Me to Mars” is that I’m a Mars enthusiast from way back.  I always hoped I’d get to GO to Mars. Some years ago, I attended several meetings called “The Case for Mars” (predecessors to the Mars Society), and have always been fascinated with the Red Planet. In 2001, my company produced a fulldome video show called MarsQuest that has been very popular.  In it, we explored the history of humanity’s fascination with the Red Planet, and gave our audiences a science-fiction look forward to what future Mars missions might be like. In the very early days of that show, high-resolution images of Mars landscapes were not as numerous as they are today, so we simulated Mars explorations of the future using great space art.  Now, we are perhaps only a few short years away from sending the first human explorers to Mars, and I can’t wait to see their first “in situ” images of the Martian landscapes.

So, why not send a message to Mars?  It costs less than a pizza, and your money will help create a better scientific and science education future through Uwingu’s grants to researchers and educators.  Join me and let’s give a global shout-out to Mars this November.




It’s a World-wide Science

Astronomers without Borders brings astronomy to people around the world. Courtesy AWB.

In July I wrote about the Astronomers Without Borders Indiegogo campaign called “Telescopes to Tanzania”.  The group’s campaign can use a boost and I’m happy to urge you to consider supporting it. AWB spreads the news about astronomy throughout the world, and there’s NO reason why kids in Tanzania shouldn’t get to learn about the same science that kids in other countries get as a matter of course. So, if you’re flush with some bucks (and that might not be more than the cost of a trip to Starbucks), head over there and help ‘em out. And, don’t forget to share your generosity and thoughts on their comments page and through Twitter and other social media. Help spread the word, okay?

Still not convinced? How about participating in “Dollar Donation Day” for the Indiegogo Campaign? Any amount, from a dollar and up will count toward the goal. And, share the fundraising link with your friends!  Head over to their campaign and shake your wallet loose. And, while you’re at it, join and or contribute to AWB’s awesome work to bring astronomy to everybody, regardless of where they live!