Unpredictable Heavens

by Rod Kennedy

It is ironic how some events fail to produce the spectacular displays projected by the popular media. For example, vulcanologist sometimes issue evacuation warnings for population centers near volcanoes, and no eruption occurs. Occasionally the same thing happens surrounding astronomical events. Meteor showers do not produce displays comparable to the past, Auroraʼs donʼt materialize, or comets do not develop long beautiful tails. This is precisely what happened, or rather didnʼt happen, in August 2010; much to the chagrin of the media.

The first “fizzle” event surrounded the sun. On August 1st, the sun unleashed not one but two CMEs (a Coronal Mass Ejection) directly toward Earth. CMEʼs are gigantic eruptions of plasma and ionized gas and are associated with the twisted magnetic fields of sunspots. When these masses of charged particles interact with Earthʼs magnetic field, they produce dazzling displays of Auroras, the Northern Lights. An additional Eruption occurred on August 7th. While some CMEʼs can cause auroras to be visible well into the southern United States, the solar events of August 1st and 7th did not cause the large geomagnetic storm that the media said was possible. Naturally predicting space weather is no easy task, even if hyping the possibility is.

The second event was the annual Perseids meteor shower. The Perseids is a meteor shower that peaks every year around the 11th and 12th of August when Earth passes through the debris stream of comet Swift-Tuttle. Some years a “Meteor Storm” of more than 1,000 meteors per hour. The Perseids of 2010 was at best an average show. The official tally, the maximum for the Perseids was 117 meteors per hour.

The final non-event of August was a much talked about event that was never possible in the first place. About every August an e-mail message begins circulating about how Mars will 1) be closer than it has been in some 60,000 years and 2) be as big and bright as the full moon. This e-mail, which has been circulating since 2004 is nothing short of a hoax. To begin with, Mars is in the extreme western part of the sky during August and quickly slipped below the horizon not long after sunset. Second, in order for Mars to appear as large as the full moon, it would have to be several million miles closer to the Earth. This would mean that Mars would no longer be in its proper orbit around the sun. Finally, if by some odd twist Mars did move closer to the Earth, the tidal forces necessary to accomplish this move would tear the planet apart.

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