"Mars Spectacular" E-Mail Hoax Spins On

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2005

Planning to haul out the deck chairs, blankets, and binoculars Saturday night for Mars's closest approach to Earth in history? Save yourself the trouble.

"The Red Planet is about to be spectacular!" a widely circulated e-mail chain letter claims. "This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history."

And just in case you didn't get the message, it ends, "NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN!"

Mars did make an incredibly close pass on August 27 ... 2003. On that date Mars came within 35 million miles of Earth—the nearest the two planets have been in perhaps 60,000 years

Titled "Mars Spectacular," the current e-mail hoax exemplifies the power of the Internet and some of the problems plaguing it.

Internet Chain Letters Never Die

The Mars e-mail alert racing across the Internet urges readers to "pass this on to your friends." Inevitably it makes its way to news outlets around the world (including National Geographic News) with enthusiastic messages—"you have to cover this!"—attached.

It's hard to know why someone would promulgate such an easily checkable story—one quick trip to a search engine brings the "Mars Spectacular" down to Earth.

Is the perpetrator gleefully waiting to see how many news organizations or Web blogs will fall for it and run the story—particularly during these notoriously slow-news dog days of summer?

If so, plotters take note: Debunkers are also sending e-mails, including an alert from Sky & Telescope magazine titled "Don't Get Snookered by Mars Malarkey."

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office for Cyber Security says chain e-mails are initiated for a number of reasons. It could be as simple as curiosity: How far will the letter will go? Others are sent in an attempt to bilk money from people to damage reputations.

Eternal E-Mails

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