The claim: There will appear to be two moons in the sky on Aug. 27.
For many Americans, 2020 so far has been a mix of anxiety and boredom: approaching six months staying at home, communicating via Zoom and fearing what may come next. So when a grandiose social media post about a rare astronomical event comes along, who wouldn’t bite?
“12:30 Aug 27th you will see two moons in the sky, but only one will be the moon. The other will be Mars,” Donita Booher posted on Facebook July 21. “It won’t happen against until 2287. No one alive today has ever witnessed this happening.”
The post received 14,000 reactionsand nearly 600,000 shares. Unfortunately, those Facebook users will be disappointed when they only see one moon in the sky on Aug. 27. This urban legend originated in 2003 and reappears nearly every year.
Booher has not yet returned USA TODAY’s request for comment.
A misinterpretation of a 2003 Mars close approach
In 2013, astronomer Phil Plait suggested the hoax, which has spread for nearly two decades via email chains and social media, may have originated from a misunderstanding of a 2003 astronomical event.
On Aug. 27, 2003, Mars’ orbit brought it less 35 million miles from Earth’s center. This historically close distance caused Mars to appear six times larger and 85 times brighter in the night sky.
According to NASA that was the closest Mars has been in 60,000 years, and it won’t be as close until Aug. 28, 2287. That day, observers could see Mars at the same size as the moon with a 75 times magnification telescope.
Plait proposed that someone may have misinterpreted that comparison to mean that Mars would appear as the same size as the moon to the naked eye.
“This rumor started off innocently enough a decade ago, but now is clearly a hoax,” he wrote in 2013. “And whomever starts the rumor every year must know it’s not real and is just playing a joke.”
The close approach, known as “perihelic opposition,” occurs when Mars, Earth and the sun are in a straight line with Earth in the center. This very close approach occurs every 15-17 years, but it was particularly close in 2003.
On July 31, 2018, Mars came within 35.8 million miles from Earth, nearly as close as it did in 2003.
The next time Mars will have a close approach will be on Oct. 6, 2020, when it will come within 38.6 million miles of Earth’s center.
Fact check: No, NASA did not find a parallel universe
The impossible photo was doctored
The post's description and image are innately contradictory and hint that the photo has been doctored. If no one alive has ever witnessed this astronomical occurrence, there is no way someone could have photographed it in color.
The photos shows the St. Nilus Stolobensky Monastery on Lake Seliger in Russia with altered moons behind it.
Our rating: False
Mars will not appear as big as the moon on Aug. 27. Astronomers say this viral hoax, which has circulated for almost two decades, is an exaggerated misinterpretation of a rare 2003 astronomical event. Mars has not and will never appear as large as the moon to the naked eye. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Hoax falsely warns of 2 moon observation in late August