April Fools' on Mars: Scientists Post Yearly Photo Joke

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 1, 2004
A pair of astrophysicists announced today that April Fools' Day is more intense on Mars than on Earth.

To back their claim, the duo notes that Mars has less gravity (pun intended) than Earth—and is therefore sillier. In addition, a Martian day, or sol, lasts nearly 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.

The astrophysicists said they plan to reveal more details on the severe Martian April Fools' phenomenon in a peer-reviewed journal. In the meantime the pair have published information on the Astronomy Picture of the Day Web site.

The tongue-in-cheek announcement was made by Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, the creative forces behind the Astronomy Picture of the Day Web site. Each day the nine-year-old Web site posts an image from space, together with a description of its relevance, for the world to see.

Nemiroff and Bonnell started their Web site in 1995, practically the dawn of the Internet. Now more than a million people take a gander at the site each week. A mirror site translates the Web site into ten languages. The site's archive is said to contain the largest collection of annotated astronomy images in cyberspace.

Last May, Nemiroff and Bonnell published a book, The Universe: 365 Days. The tome showcases the 365 best images posted on the Web site in its first six years.

"Basically, [the site] grew out of lunch conversations about what the Internet and World Wide Web might be and what sort of contribution we could make," said Bonnell, who is an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Funny Pictures

The idea for a special April Fools' Day image was sparked in 1998. At the time, Nemiroff, who now works as a physics professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, came across a shot of Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott looking like he was about to kick a space instrument on the moon.

"I investigated it and found out it was just a funny angle," Nemiroff said. "But I remembered it when April Fools' Day came around. After that, the text just wrote itself."

Nemiroff titled the picture "Astronaut Kicks Lunar Field Goal" and wrote, in part, "Scott used a special 'lunar football' designed for the rugged games held on the Moon. R1D1, a predecessor to R2D2, cheers from the sideline."

Toward the end of the text, Nemiroff wished readers a happy April Fools' Day and explained that in reality Scott was adjusting a lunar experiment and that the fan referred to as R1D1 was actually a device that measured high-energy particles from the sun.

Nemiroff said his favorite April Fools' Day Astronomy Picture of the Day was posted in 2001. The image shows two space shuttle astronauts on a space walk. The two were described as playing the historic first "Space Quidditch" match. Quidditch is a fictional game played by wizards in the popular J.K. Rowling's popular Harry Potter novels.

"I hope that astronauts will actually make up a game like Space Quidditch one day," Nemiroff said.

Bonnell, meanwhile, said his favorite April Fools' Day posting is a 1999 picture of "snow fields" on Mars imaged by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. Bonnell titled the image "Ski Mars!"

"It must have been about the time my kids were learning to snowboard, and I was trying to keep up with them," Bonnell said.

Text notes accompanying the photo noted that the planet's uncrowded slopes indicated expensive lift tickets but that "a vacation on the red planet could still offer some advantages to skiing or snowboarding enthusiasts. For example, Mars' low gravity—only about [three-eighths] Earth's gravity—would definitely tend to reduce sore muscles and fall-related injuries."

Other hoax images include 2002's slightly altered picture of the moon, purporting to show a numeric date in one of the craters. The image was titled "Hubble Resolves Expiration Date for Green Cheese Moon." The image was actually taken in 1965 by the Ranger 9 spacecraft moments before impact.

For April Fools' Day 2003, Nemiroff and Bonnell posted a picture of the underside of a bird's talons. The bird had been perched on a camera at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The caption: "A New Constellation Takes Hold."

"April Fools' Day is supposed to be fun. We try to keep this in mind and even have fun ourselves when writing these up," Nemiroff said.

Image Processing

When Bonnell and Nemiroff started the Astronomy Picture of the Day, it forced them to look beyond their field of gamma ray astronomy to find something interesting to post each day.

As Bonnell put it, producing the site "makes us every once and a while stop and look around and smell the astrophysical roses and see what everybody else is up to."

Now, with the popularity of the Web site, their e-mail boxes are flooded with pictures and suggestions from their fans around the world. April Fools' Day is among the most popular days for fans to submit images for.

The current interest in Mars, and the stream of images beamed down to Earth from the various spacecraft roving and orbiting the planet, made 2004's hoax a no-brainer, Bonnell said.

For more hoax news, scroll down for related stories and links.

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