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.

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