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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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Venus, is the queen of planets that rules the early morning hours in July. Our closest neighboring planet glows brightly because it is close, and because its atmosphere is composed of thick clouds of carbon dioxide that reflect sunlight back into space.

If you look to the eastern horizon two or three hours before dawn, you should see it easily. On July 20 in the early morning, you can also watch the waning crescent moon pass by Venus.

Photo: Mayak Satellite

If you want to spot something manmade up there (and with all the talk about Russia in the news), you can see the Russian satellite Mayak which will be almost as bright as the moon on the 14th. Why so bright? It will unfurl its reflective solar sails after its launch on July 14th.

Mayak (meaning “lighthouse”) goes up in a Soyuz-2.1a rocket and once in orbit, the pyramidal solar reflectors open and it becomes one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

Some sky gazers are not thrilled with that because this crowdfunded project (designed by students from Moscow Polytechnic) will not help the dark skies that astronomers cherish. The New Moon on July 23 is the kind of dark night sky that telescope gazers see as a perfect opportunity.

You can look for the Delta Aquarids meteors to light up the early morning skies on July 27 and 28. They are the pre-show for the better known Perseid meteor shower in early August. To catch the shower at its best, look up on the morning of the 27 or 28 between 2-3 a.m.

The meteors get their name because they seem to originate near the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer in the southern sky. We say “appear” because the shower is debris from Comet 96P Machholz, a short-period sun-grazing comet that swings our way every five years.

venus-pacific

Venus reflected in the Pacific Ocean

On February 16, 2017, here in the Western Hemisphere, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent. Those of you in Australia, New Zealand, Asia will see this on February 17.

You shouldn’t need an “event” to look up at the night sky in wonder, but this might be a reason to look up tonight and know a bit more about what you are seeing.

Look for Venus in the west after sunset and you will also see Mars nearby to the left (south) and a bit higher. That “evening star” is at its most brilliant because its day/illuminated side is covering more square area of Earth’s sky than in its 9.6-month appearance in the evening sky.

If you looked through a telescope, you would see that Venus’ disk is just a bit more than one-quarter illuminated by sunshine, and the full Venus is always on the far side of the sun from us. So, we are seeing Venus as a crescent at its greatest illuminated extent – and still, it is spectacular.

Back in early June, I wrote about looking westward in evening twilight and easily spotting the planet Venus as the  brightest “star.” That third-brightest object in all the heavens (after the sun and moon) was accompanied then by an also bright Jupiter.

From then on, Venus slowly began to sink toward the sunset. Like the arrival of the Perseid meteor shower, this movement is surer than the seasons in nature. Sometimes summer stays longer than the calendar tells it to stay and winter comes earlier or later. But today, 10 weeks later, Venus will set with the sun and make its transition out of the evening sky and into the morning sky.

The celestial clock clicks forward, unconcerned with us and our little lives.

Venus orbit

Venus completes an orbit every 224.65 days or about 1.6 times (yellow trail) to Earth’s 365 days (blue trail).<
Animation by Lookang many thanks to author of original simulation = Todd K. Timberlake author of Easy Java Simulation = Francisco Esquembre – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Venusorbitsolarsystem.gif#/media/File:Venusorbitsolarsystem.gif

Tonight,  May 21, 2015, Venus is quite clear near the waxing crescent moon in the western sky. Venus is the third-brightest celestial object in our view, after the sun and moon.

The fourth-brightest celestial body is Jupiter and it is above the moon and Venus and can also be seen at dusk. If it is a clear night for you, you will see, as the darkness deepens, the bright star Regulus above Jupiter, and the Gemini stars, Castor and Pollux , will come out above Venus.

 

 

 

Venus and Jupiter are tens of millions of miles apart, but they have been cycling together while moving ever closer to each other this month and are joined by Mercury. This weekend they appear as a bright triangle of light in the western sky beginning about 30 minutes after sunset.

This triple conjunctions is a pretty rare. The last one was in May 2011 and the next one will not occur until October 2015. This weekend’s sky show is a good one because it involves the three brightest planets in May’s night sky, so even observers in cities with bright lights can see them on a clear night.

All three planets will be about 3o degrees apart (the width of your thumb at arm’s length) about 45 minutes after sunset on May 25, 26 and 27. Tonight, Mercury forms the top of the triangle. By Monday, Venus and Jupiter will be side by side, less than 1 degree apart.

As the month ends, Venus and Mercury will climb higher into the evening sky, while Jupiter drops toward the sun.

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