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There’s all kinds of fake news these days. There is even fake news about fake news. There has pretty much always been fake news about science, even before we used the word science.

Imagine all those ancient people wondering about lunar and solar eclipses. How many of them did eye damage by staring up at a solar eclipse? Were the gods or a God punishing us by taking away the Sun, and further punishing those who dared to look at it? Did they pray the Sun would return and rejoice when it did return?

In July 2015, an article online claimed that NASA had confirmed that the Earth will experience 15 days of total darkness between November 15 and November 29, 2015. Supposedly, this had not occurred in over one million years.

Of course, it was fake news. The original story seems to have come from a fake news website Newswatch33 (no link to it here which would only increase its search ranking).

The story is evergreen and came back as happening in November 2016 as that date approached the following year, and I saw it this week as a link in some Facebook feeds as an event for November 2017. I suspect the eclipse publicity brought this “November Blackout” story back and social media will give it some life again. Any number of legitimate news, science or debunking websites will tell you it’s completely fake.

And yet some people believe it. Wouldn’t you think that if  NASA knew that the world will remain in complete darkness for 15 day it would have been covered by the real media and not just by your friends on social media?

The “explanation” of this supposed event was that it would occur because of  another astronomical event between Venus and Jupiter. It was explained that during the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter on October 26, light from Venus would cause gases in Jupiter to heat up and those gasses will cause a large amount of hydrogen to be released into space. The gases will reach the Sun and trigger a massive explosion on the surface of the star, heating it to 9,000 degrees Kelvin. The heat of the explosion would then cause the Sun to emit a blue color. The dull blue color will last for 15 days during which the Earth will be thrown into darkness.”

This bullshit jumps off from the term “conjunctions,” which are real but mostly just visual phenomena. Conjunction, in astronomy, is an apparent close meeting or passing of two or more celestial bodies. It is hardly a rare thing. The Moon is in conjunction with the Sun every month at the phase of New Moon, when it moves between the Earth and Sun and the side turned toward the Earth is dark. That two things in the sky look closer together from our point of view on Earth does not mean that they are in fact close together.

Are Jupiter and Venus ever in conjunction? Yes, and when that happens they can still be over 800 million km apart. (For perspective, the Sun and the Earth are about 150 million km apart.)

Jupiter doesn’t affect the Sun. At about 778 million km from the Sun,  Jupiter could swap places with Venus or Jupiter could disappear and the Sun would go on shining normally.

I suppose we Earthlings would like to believe that amazing things can happen. Add to that the pretty poor understanding of basic science (especially of things astronomical) that most people have retained (oh, it was taught to you in school), and these ridiculous stories more easily gain traction. It’s not that fake news didn’t make its way around a town, country or the world a thousand years ago. Surely, it did – but slowly. Since the rise in popularity of the Internet and social media sharing, hoaxes and fake news has proliferated at an incredibly fast rate.

One of the other big fake science stories is the  “Mars Hoax” which pops up every August online since 2003. That year, a historically close approach of the Red Planet to Earth actually did occur. But it has become an annual event online and the closeness has grown so that the headline or link will say that on some particular night in August, Mars will appear as big as the full moon. Totally untrue. That didn’t even happen in 2003. It will never happen.

This year there was a new fake story to start the year saying that on January 4, 2017 it would be “Zero Gravity Day”  when people on Earth would be able to experience weightlessness if they jumped into the air at a specific moment that day. How many people believed that one? I don’t have that number, but I suspect it is not zero.

That particular story sent me back to childhood and listening to the humorist Jean Shepherd on the radio. At least once, he tried to get listeners to jump as high as they could on his command to test a theory that if we removed enough weight from the Earth all at once, we could tip the planet. We knew it was Shep yanking our chain, but I did jump on his command just for the heck of it.

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about fake news and I said that, of course, everyone knows that headlines from The Onion or The Borowitz Report are quite deliberately fake and satiric. My friend didn’t know that and didn’t think he had ever seen any of those stories. As someone on Facebook and Twitter, I’m sure he has seen them. I hope he didn’t believe any of them.

Sure, Andy Borowitz is published by The New Yorker, a very legitimate and respected magazine, but his Borowitz Report web page says right at the top “Satire from the Borowitz Report. Not the news.” But you don’t see that tagline disclaimer when someone posts a link to one of his stories. You see “Trump Says Sun Equally to Blame for Blocking the Moon,” and think that since President Trump has said so many ridiculous things lately that it might actually be true. It is getting harder to be ridiculous these days.

The Onion‘s headlines tend to be a bit easier to spot as satire – “‘My Work Here Is Done,’ Smiles Contented Bannon Before Bursting Into Millions Of Spores,” for example – but I’m sure there are people who read them (and pass them on) sometimes as real news.  SAD – as our President might comment about this in a tweet.

 

 

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mars simulation

Exiting the capsule. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

We have thought about Mars for a long time. Ancient people knew of it, probably first as a bright star and later as a planet. We saw it closer with telescopes, and we imagined Martians lived there. All the 1950s sci-fi books and movies that had aliens from our solar system had them coming from Mars.

Those Martians invading Earth have given way to humans invading Mars.

Is Mars as the next frontier for human exploration? It seems that way. In March, President Trump signed a bill reiterating NASA’s plan to send people to orbit Mars in the 2030s, with a goal of studying the possibility of “living off the land” there.

Movies like The Martian and Interstellar piqué our interest in living off-Earth – and make it seem more possible than it is right now.

As the U.S. in preparation for the Moon landing, we do simulated Mars exercises in the desert. The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is such a facility located in Utah. The site’s empty red hills and canyons have been a Mars testing ground for 16 years.

NPR did a story about Crew 177, a team of students and teachers from a Texas community college who had applied to spend a week in a two-story metal cylinder at the MDRS near Hanksville in southern Utah.

The Mars Society

The Mars Society is a nonprofit funded by grants, private donations and membership fees.

They once got donations from the [Elon] Musk Foundation, but he has his own plan to colonize Mars now.

The Society started using the Utah site in 2001. They are not affiliated with NASA who has its own simulation site in Hawaii. NASA runs simulated missions that last as long as a year.

Is this all about Mars exploration for scientific or economic gains? Or both? Or is Mars our Plan B?

Science fiction explored the Plan B idea a long time ago with Mars or other planets being a place to go if – or more likely, when – Earth is no longer habitable.

Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post in 2016 that Mars is not a Plan B, but there are still some serious projects to get there for a variety of reasons.

And don’t we want to get out there before the aliens make their arrival here?

When the mothership lands, know who your friends are.

collecting specimens

An “extravehicular activity,” collecting rock specimens. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

double moon hoax

The idea that it will look like there is a double Full Moon this week on the August 27 because Mars is passing so close to Earth that it appears the same size as the Moon in the night sky, is complete lunacy.

This is a story – usually accompanied by a photo like the one here that I really hesitated to spread around again – that has had a very healthy life on social media and even earlier via email since the turn of the century.

It really gained power in 2003 when Mars did pass within 35 million miles of Earth on Aug. 27 of that year. Yes, that was its closest approach to our planet in nearly 60,000 years. But even though Mars appeared six times bigger and 85 times brighter in the night sky than it normally does, it was nowhere near the size of the Moon. It still looked like the reddish star.

If you have time to waste and search “double moon,” you’ll get lots of results. Facebook, the main vector of misinformation these days, has over a million shares on the hoax.  There may be a nice Full Moon to see in your night sky this week, but nothing more captivating about it than the monthly wonder of seeing it up there.

martian2

The last film about space I watched was Interstellar.  My wife wouldn’t watch it with me. She suspected it would get all scientific. Well, movie scientific, anyway. She was right.

I liked the film, but the science (which I know was done carefully) gets wonky and farfetched in the end. Still, I’m planning to watch another space film, The Martian , when it comes out in November.

The novel it is based on is a first novel by Andy Weir. It is science fiction. An American astronaut, Mark Watney, becomes stranded alone on Mars and must improvise in order to survive. A review I had read described it as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away.

You never know how a film adaptation will turn out, but the director is Ridley Scott and it stars Matt Damon. That’s a good start.

The author is the son of a particle physicist and I had read that he researched the science to be as realistic as possible based on existing technology.

It has an interesting publishing history. Weir hadn’t had success with publishers in the past, so he put The Martian online in serial format one chapter at a time for free at his website, and the he made an Amazon Kindle version available at 99 cents. That is where I found it on the advice of a friend.

It sold 35,000 copies in three months, got the attention of publishers, was “legitimately” published and debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list on March 2, 2014

I watched the Official Trailer for the film. The basic story is there. Stranded alone on Mars with few supplies, Watney must survive and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Back on Earth, scientists work to bring home “the Martian” and his crewmates also plan a rescue mission.

martian1

The story reminded me of an old sci-fi film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. This 1964 film is a science fiction retelling of the classic novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe.

It sounds like it would be a truly “B” film, but is more thoughtful than you would expect. I hope the same will be true of The Martian.

A spaceship crash landing on Mars leaves astronaut Paul Mantee abandoned. He must figure out how to survive in this hostile environment. (They shot most of the film in Death Valley.) Now hang on to your credulity. He is aided by a monkey from his ship.

It is a vote of quality that the DVD of this film is one of the Criterion Collection which gives it a nice presentation including a commentary track, interviews, a featurette and an odd little “music video.”

Before the 1960s, all the sci-fi about Mars was about aliens that lived there. Now, the “Martians” are us.

If you want to follow The Martian film pre-release:

two-moons-hoax

This faked photo often appears online with the story that Mars will appear as big and bright as a full moon on August 27.

Right off, let’s say that Mars will NOT be approaching Earth this week at some extraordinary closeness.  I think this must be an offshoot of the “supermoon” phenomena.

This hoax or just misinformation has been bouncing around the Net since the days when these kinds of memes were passed via emails. Here’s what you might see posted online on Facebook or other networks

On August 27 lift up your eyes and look up at the night sky because the planet Mars will pass just 34.65 million miles from the earth. To the naked eye it will look like two moons. The next time Mars will be so close to the Earth is in 2287. No one living on this earth has ever seen this and no one living now will ever see it again!

The closes we have to there being any truth to this goes back to August 27, 2003.  Mars, the red planet, did come within 35 million miles (or 56 million kilometers) of Earth and that was its nearest approach to us in almost 60,000 years. I remember looking up that night. My view was obscured but Mars appeared approximately 6 times larger and 85 times brighter in the sky than it ordinarily does.

This what is known to astronomers as a perihelic opposition. It is a rare occurrence, but Mars comes almost as near to us every 15 to 17 years. Mars’ appearance in August 2003 wouldn’t have looked much bigger to the eye than on its other close appearances.

If you want to mark your calendar for 2018 (I’ll queue up the blog post now), our view of Mars will be similar to the 2003.

But it won’t be until the year 2287 that Mars will come closer to Earth than it did back in 2003.

So is anything interesting happening this week in the sky?  EarthSky reports that first of all the moon will not be full on August 27, 2014 but just a thin crescent in the west after sunset. Mars will also not be at its brightest or its closest at all in 2014.

It’s still a good idea to look up in the sky at night and enjoy the Moon, the stars and the planets.

Mars_Hubble1

Mars will never appear as large as a full moon in Earth’s sky. But if it did, it might look like this NASA photo taken of it from the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

 

mars-hubble

This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an  encounter that will culminate in the closest  approach between the two planets in recorded  history.

Is that the tagline for a summer blockbuster disaster film? No.
Is it true? No.

The past six years, emails have spread that story or something like it around at this time of the year.

The emails also say that on August 27,  Mars will come so close to Earth, the red planet will be “as big as a full Moon” in the night sky. Not true.

It seems to have started back in 2003 when Mars did actually make a close approach. It came to its closest distance to Earth in about 60,000 years at about 35 million miles away, so it did appear about six times larger and 85% brighter in the night sky than normal. I recall making my sons go out on the deck with me to see it.  However, it did not  look “as large as the full moon when viewed with the naked eye.”

Mars actually reaches opposition every couple of years. In 2007, it came within 55 million miles of Earth. The next opposition is January 30, 2010.

One line in that hoax email that is true is that Mars will not be at that 2003 distance from Earth again until the year 2287.  Nothing historical about this summer.

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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