Tuesday July 31st the outer planet Mars will be at its closest to the Earth – this time around. Coincidentally this is 4 days after Mars was at opposition, and about 3 weeks after Earth was at aphelion. However this is not the closest Mars has been from the Earth. The closest, so far, was during August 2003.
A Martian Urban Legend
“This year, during August, Mars will be at its closest to the Earth; so close, in fact, that it will appear as large as the full Moon.”
Have you heard this urban legend before? Since 2003, emails describing this myth have circulated the internet usually during July or August. It all started during the opposition of August 2003 when Mars was about as close as it can ever be to the Earth (55,755,723 km – 34,645,000 miles) in a 20-year cycle of varying distances at opposition. Since then, usually around August, misinformation about the appearance of Mars circulates around the internet.
In the time that it takes the Earth to catch up with and move into an opposition position, the outer planets have also been moving eastward relative to the stars in the background. Over time, the constellation where the outer planet is located during opposition and its retrograde loop gradually shift to the east. An opposition is also near the time when the distance between the Earth and an outer planet is around the minimum distance. Keep in mind that because the shape of the orbit is elliptical, this minimum distance will be different each time.
However, there is an even more conclusive way to show that Mars could never be so close that it would appear as large as the Moon. To see how requires and some basic arithmetic. You will see that Mars could not appear to be as large as our Moon unless some force somehow caused Mars to change its orbital position and literally move closer to Earth.
On July 31st, Mars will be 57,595,180 km (35,787,986 miles) from Earth. Mars is 6,792 km (4,220 mi.) in diameter. The Moon is 3,475 km (2,159 mi.) in diameter and is an average 384,400 km (238,900 mi.) from Earth. In terms of apparent size our Moon has an angular diameter of 0.5o (30 arc minutes or 1800 arc seconds), while on July 31st Mars has an apparent diameter of 24 arc seconds.
So with the following calculation using those values (24 / 1800) x 100% = 1.3%) Mars is only 1.3% the apparent size of our Moon.
Another method to calculate how large Mars will appear as compared to the Moon:
(Mars’s diameter ÷ Mars’s distance) ÷ (Moon’s diameter ÷ Moon’s distance)
(4220 / 35787986) / (2159 / 238900) = 0.013 = 1.3%
In other words, Mars on 31 July will be only 1.3% of the apparent size of the Moon.
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