Wandering through the realms of the cosmos, pondering its huge vastness

Misconceptions and Hoaxes

Travel Package to Outer Space!


UP Astronomical Society in collaboration with Trade School Manila invites you to

The Travel Package to Outer Space I

A class (for all ages) that consists of interesting presentations about the following topics (celestial sphere, astronomical events and misconceptions, constellation and time telling). Fun DIY experiments await after the presentation!

NO REGISTRATION FEE! Take the class and pay for it with an item from the instructor’s wish list: tent, storage box, kiddie/roll up mats, flashlight with red lens, electric floor/box fan, celestial sphere model or celestial globe, Astronomy books (brand new or second hand)

This event is on October 5, 2013, 6:00pm at Liberty Plaza, 102 H.V. Dela Costa Street, Salcedo Village, Makati City.

Directions on how to get to the venue: You can ride the MRT and get off at Buendia Station. Ride a jeepney beside McDonald’s and go down at Buendia-Makati Avenue (Petron gas station). Cross the street to get to the other side (Pacific Star building) and walk straight at Makati Avenue until you reach H.V. dela Costa. Walk through H.V. dela Costa until you reach Commune (it’s at the corner of Valero and H.V. dela Costa).


Register now at http://www.tiny.cc/astrotrade

How Big is a Supermoon?

The image above is a comparison of the apparent size of last month’s Paschal Full Moon and tonight’s perigee moon or Super Full Moon. Both were taken using the same method and same equipment.

Perigee is the point in moon’s elliptical path around the earth at which it is closest to the center of the earth.

Although decent focus was very hard to achieve due to passing clouds (hence my supermoon image appeared blurred), it is still noticeable that there was not much significant difference between the size of the two full moons eventhough the supermoon is the biggest and brightest of all the full moons this year.

In fact, looking at the moon in the sky without anything to compare it to, you wouldn’t notice  find any specific difference in its shape, size, color or brightness. But the difference in size can be quite significant if you were to photograph a full moon at apogee (farthest) and perigee (closest) using the same lens. It’s 33 vs. 29 arc min for average perigee vs. apogee, meaning the apogee moon is about 15% larger in diameter or 35%  larger in area.

The apogee moon this year will occur on November 28 at 406349 km.

By the way, for those who were asking, nothing special will ever happen at the particular moment when the ordinary “full moon” will become a “Super moon” at a given “point of time”. Only the media people were exaggerating the news about this event.

For astronomers, it’s just a common phenomenon taking place at regular period.

Hoax Alert: Cosmic Rays from Mars Entering Earth

There have been rumors circulating that cosmic rays from Mars are entering Earth tonight so we need to switch off our phones, or put them away from us.

Tonight 12:30 am to 3:30 am cosmo rays entering earth from mars. So switch off your mobile at night. Don’t keep your cell with you & put it away while you are sleeping because they are too much dangerous rays: NASA informs BBC NEWS. Pls spread this news.

The message above is clearly nothing more than just another HOAX. I don’t know why people are circulating panic messages such as this to disturb the lives of other people. From what I have noticed, this message has been circulating since 2008 and it suddenly reappeared today, 6 April 2012. I also received text messages containing this false information and saw similar Facebook posts.

I did my own research and I have found no credible reports that confirm the claims in the warning message. There are no references to such a threat listed on credible scientific websites. I also checked the NASA and BBC news today to see if they have posted something like this. Fortunately, both have never said such a thing and will never probably produce a similar baseless statement.

Despite the claim in the message, there are several reasons to say that this information is untrue.

First, Mars could not emit harmful radiation because it is not a star. Cosmic rays are emitted by stars. i.e bodies that are undergoing nuclear reactions that is fusion (as occurs in our sun) or fission (as occurs in nuclear reactors). Mars is neither. It is a planet that just reflects sunlight. It cannot emit cosmic radiation.

Next, with regards to these rays the earth’s atmosphere is capable of taking care of them so no need to worry. The magnetosphere absorbs and protects us from the sun’s harmful radiation. Whatever remains is too feeble to affect any thing as far as earth.

The Earth’s magnetosphere prevents most of the particles from the Sun, carried in the solar wind, from hitting the Earth. Image credit: milesmathis.com

Another thing is that we are actually hit by cosmic rays every day — all day (and night too). If it was going to hurt your cell, then it would have already fried it by now.

Sometimes magnetic storms on the sun will fry the electronics of satellites in orbit, and may also blow out the power grid in high latitudes near the Earth’s magnetic poles, but other than static, I don’t see what it might do to your cell phones.

So, to anyone who will receive this kind of message, please think it over and help educate others. 🙂 Spreading dubious and unsubstantiated warnings such as this is counterproductive and is unlikely to help anyone.

Learn more about cosmic rays from this NASA website.

Supermoon Misconception

Biggest Full Moon of 2011 (image: Celestia)


During the past few days, rumors associating  the March 19, 2011 “Supermoon” to some recent catastrophes were spreading all over different media like wild fire.

Again, we should not blame this largest full moon of the year for any natural disasters because it has nothing to do with those happenings. Tides will go higher than usual average tides along coastlines as a consequence of the moon’s gravitational pull, but nothing so significant that will cause a serious climatic disaster or anything for people to worry about like the tsunamis in Japan. These tsunamis were caused by earthquakes which were definitely not triggered by the Moon’s attraction.

The following links features helpful articles which debunks the idea of this junk pseudoscience.

Remember, the Supermoon is not a thing to be scared of rather, it is a spectacle to be enjoyed. 🙂

Watch out as the lunar disk rises above the eastern horizon after sunset at 18:10 UT. This will present a stunning sight with the naked eye, in binoculars, and through the camera viewfinder for those of you lucky enough to have a clear sky.


Ophiuchus — A New Zodiac Sign???

Hey, have you checked your daily horoscope? 😀

Well, think again because you might be surprised to learn that you are no longer a Gemini, an Aquarian or whatever you call yourself as an individual who is under one particular sign of the zodiac based on Astrology.

Please don’t get me wrong. I haven’t convinced myself to shift my interest in astronomy into studying and forecasting the future of people according to stellar and planetary movements.

Though they may sound the same, Astrology and Astronomy are pretty much different from each other. “Astronomy deals with the study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth’s atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation). Astrology on one hand, are set of beliefs and traditions which hold that the relative positions of celestial bodies and related details can provide information about personality, human affairs and other “earthly” matters”.” (Wikipedia)

I was just overwhelmed to see how this news about the “new zodiac sign” – which was supposedly not news anymore especially to astronomy buffs – spread like wildfire all over local television and the Internet. Below are some of the links I found which contained the topic.

Yahoo News: Earth’s rotation causes new zodiac sign assignments

Yahoo News: Horoscope Hang-Up: Earth Rotation Changes Zodiac Signs

ABS-CBN News: What’s your sign? Double-check ‘new’ zodiac before answering

A Pakistan Times: New Zodiac Signs 2011

CBS News: Zodiac: What’s Your New Sign?

NewsTube: New Zodiac sign dates: Don’t switch horoscopes yet

There are a lot more of these that you could find online. According to these news, a certain Parke Kunkle of the Minnesota Planetarium Society said that because of the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth, the alignment of the stars was pushed by about a month which prompted new consideration of a new sign — Ophiuchus —  into standard zodiacs.

“Astronomers from the Minnesota Planetarium Society have found that the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth changed our planet’s position in relation to its axis, making the original alignment of the stars, the basis for the zodiac signs, “off” by about a month. Thus, a thirteenth zodiac sign, Ophiuchus, was added to the original 12.” (Yahoo News)

Precession—the change in orientation of the Earth's rotational axis. (Source: NASA)

Read more about precession and its effects here.

If you’re gonna ask me whether this is true or not, I would definitely say yes, it is true. But here’s the catch: this truth has been established a long time ago and in fact, there’s really nothing new about it.

The constellation Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus was recognised as a part of the zodiac by the  International Astronomical Union in 1930, during the time when IAU set the official constellation boundaries. Each constellation was published as a set of specifications that reads like a surveyor’s plot of irregular parcels of land. The redrawing of the boundaries is what caused this addition of a constellation to the Zodiac.

However, the fact is that Ophiuchus was recognized as a zodiacal constellation at least 1700 years before the IAU even came into existence. Even Ptolemy’s “Almagest”, written in the 2nd century A.D., recognised Ophiuchus as a part of the zodiac.

The Zodiac, the constellations that lie on the plane of the ecliptic through which the Sun passes in the course of a year, now has 13 constellations* – not 12 – including Ophiuchus or “the Serpent Bearer”. The Sun is in front of its stars during the first half of December and as it turns out, most Sagittarians are really Ophiuchans.

*Note: The signs are named after twelve of the constellations that coincide with the ecliptic, though they no longer correspond well to them due to precession. The zodiac is a celestial coordinate system, or more specifically an ecliptic coordinate system, taking the ecliptic as the origin of latitude, and the position of the sun at vernal equinox as the origin of longitude.

Below is a list of constellations and the dates the Sun now appears in front of those stars in the 21st century.

Constellations of the Zodiac (Google Images)

SAGITTARIUS December 19 – January 20
CAPRICORNUS January 21 – February 16
AQUARIUS February 17 – March 13
PISCES March 14 – April 19
ARIES April 20 – May 15
TAURUS May 16 – June 21
GEMINI June 22 – July 21
CANCER July 22 – August 10
LEO August 11 – September 17
VIRGO September 18 – October 31
LIBRA November 1 – November 24
SCORPIUS November 25 – November 30
OPHIUCHUS December 1 – December 18

So why do we have a new astrological sign, Ophiuchus? It turns out that the answer is far less scientific.  Back in ancient times, when the dates of the astrological signs were solidified, astrologers divided the sun’s path through the stars into twelve equally-spaced segments.  Each of the twelve segments was assigned to a different constellation.  But the fact of the matter is that these constellations are not equally sized.  In fact, the “size” of a constellation isn’t even very well defined, since what is a constellation but a set of stars that’s supposed to look like something (but usually doesn’t really). As I what I have written above, It was only then in 1930 that these constellation boundaries were made specific.

Going back to those articles, I found out that Parke Kunkle is indeed a professional astronomer, a Minneapolis professor and MnPS board member. He was first interviewed by the Star Tribune regarding this topic on the additional zodiacal constellation. Here is the link to the original article. However, contrary to what it appears like, this guy is a no fanatic of Astrology.

“There is no physical connection between constellations and personality traits,” said Kunkle, who teaches astronomy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “Sure, we can connect harvest to the stars,” he said. “But personality? No.”

Historically, people looked at the sky to understand the world around us,” he said. “But today I don’t think people who are into astrology look at the sky very much.” (startribune.com)

I also got to find this part of a note from the Facebook Fanpage of Minnesota Planetarium Society which contained his statement about the spreading of this news:

In science we deal with a long tradition of fact based investigation. We are not in the business of interpreting  the purported relation between the positions of planets and human affairs.”

From this I could say that this particular issue must have been another product of biased reporting and sensationalism caused and spread by improper media coverage. Complex subjects and affairs like this one, are often subject to sensationalism.

Anyway, If you happen to be a proud Ophiuchan, your constellation has several astronomical splendor that actually exist in the sky. First of all it contains seven Messier globular clusters- M9, M10, M12, M14, M19, M62 and M107- making Ophiuchus pretty much a good spot for globular clusters. Also, NGC 6240, the strange remnant of a merger between two smaller galaxies, resulting in a single larger galaxy, with two distinct nuclei and a highly disturbed structure. The high proper motion star and one of the closest stars to the Sun, Barnard’s Star can be found in Ophiuchus, as well as RS Ophiuchi, a recurrent nova thought to be teetering on the brink of becoming a Type 1A supernova.

It’s fun to learn the meaning and the legends behind all the astronomical names, made up by people thousands of years ago as they looked to the sky in amazement at celestial patterns and motions they didn’t understand.  But it’s a lot more fun to observe the heavens through the eyes of a 21st century critically thinking human being, capable of understanding to a great extent, the origin, history and fate of our universe. The universe is beautiful, amazing and mysterious without the mumbo-jumbo. 😀


Astro Fact vs Astro Fiction

Are you tired of figuring out what’s real or not? Are you fed up with scientific hoaxes on Hollywood’s visions of warp speed and faster-than-light travel? Then,this is your chance to know what’s real and what’s not.

The UP Astronomical Society invites you to its Alternative Classroom Learning Experience (ACLE) for this year:


August 25, 2010 at 1pm, PH 114 Palma Hall, U.P. Diliman

See you there! 😀


image above:  The U.S.S Enterprise NCC-1701 (Star Trek) | Google Images

36 Hours of Darkness on October 17, 2010: A New Hoax?

Just recently, a friend shared an article from Manila Bulletin’s website titled “36 hours of darkness in US likely on October 17”. I read it and had an impression that this could be another nonsense rumor like the Mars Hoax , based on my own knowledge of these things. However, the writer claimed that the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) said that this event “may partially hold true“.

Quoting the original article, it says

Online and text rumors claiming that the sun will rise continuously for 36 hours on October 17, 2010 in some parts of the world and leave the United States in darkness for 36 hours may partially hold true, an official of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) said on Wednesday.

The report spreading through e-mails and text messages noted that this “coming October 17, 2010, the sun will rise continuously for 36 hours (1.5 days). During this time, the American countries will be dark for 1.5 days. It will convert three days into two big days. It will happen once in 2,400 yrs.”

I did my own research on this topic to know more and I learned that the same article with the same author, Ellalyn de Vera, was also featured in Yahoo News – Philippines and in another local newspaper, Tempo. Other than these, only a few websites had discussions which debunked this topic. Following are some of them:

Will the sun rise for 36 hours on October 17, 2008?

The big day!! Coming October 17, 2008 the sun will rise continuously?

Is coming October 17 the sun will rise continuously for 36 hours?

Wow..Wow..17 Oct’ 2008 the Sun will rise continuously for 36 hours..IS THAT TRUE????

On Oct. 17 the Sun will rise continuously for 36 hours

“The further north you go, the longer the days. This may be true near the arctic circle, but not for the US, other than Alaska. And it certainly does not happen just over two to three days. Arctic days and nights are gradual things, lengthening and shortening over the course of a year. For it to happen just for the day, the Earth would need to slow down its rate of spin. Not possible for a body as massive as the Earth, without destroying itself as the energy from angular momentum changes so abruptly.” (This is one of the best logical explanations I found.)

Most of the websites above clearly said that this “hoax” originated in India and circulated in emails and text messages since 2008.

To further confirm the information contained in the article, I decided to visit the PAGASA Astronomical Observatory in U.P. Diliman to look for Engr. Dario dela Cruz, officer-in-charge of the PAGASA space sciences and astronomy section. Unfortunately, he was not there during that time so I just talked to Sir Mario, the head of the Observatory about the article.

I showed Sir Mario a copy which I printed from the Internet and he told me that it was the first time he had seen the news report.

We spent a few minutes talking. There were several important points raised during our discussion which I will list down here:

(1) Engr. dela Cruz’s statement below is true.

“After we experience the equinox during September, countries located in the Southern Hemisphere begin to observe longer days, as against those in Northern Hemisphere that observe longer nights, which include the northernmost part of the United States.

Starting September 24, there is a gradual decrease in the number of hours of nighttime as we go below the latitude. Countries located above 66.5 degrees are those that only experience a whole day of darkness.”

Equinox and Solstice

(2) However, if the “36 Hours of Darkness” will happen, the possibility of its occurrence will just be limited to the northernmost or southernmost part of the globe like the north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle. (see diagram below for visualization)

Tilt of the Earth's Axis

(3) Currently, the most number of hours in which the sun would not set (also called the Midnight Sun) or rise is only for 24 hours and it happens mostly north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle, never in any part of America which is located at lower latitudes.

(4) This event, the Midnight sun, is a natural phenomenon and it happens every year, not just every 2,400 yrs as was claimed in the article.

(5) There is still no scientific evidence based on data and computations that the 36 hours of darkness is likely to occur. The basis for the expected date October 17, 2010 wherein it was said to happen was still unknown to them.

(6) If this was to happen, it was only logical that the event should fall near solstices, and not near equinoxes.(September Equinox this year)

So based on Sir Mario’s explanations, the claim in the article about having “36 hours of Darkness” is more likely just a misinterpretation or simply a HOAX.

* * *


Equinox – occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun. The term equinox can also be used in a broader sense, meaning the date when such a passage happens. The name “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the night and day are approximately equally long. This year, equinox falls on March 20 and September 23.

Solstice – either of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs about June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.


image credit: Google images

Will the sun rise for 36 hours on October 17, 2008?

The big day!! Coming October 17, 2008 the sun will rise continuously?

Is coming October 17 the sun will rise continuously for 36 hours?

Wow..Wow..17 Oct’ 2008 the Sun will rise continuously for 36 hours..IS THAT TRUE???..?

On Oct. 17 the Sun will rise continuously for 36 hours

The Mars Hoax: Double Moon on August 2010

We can never see Mars as big as this without the aid of telescopes

“On August 27th … Mars will look as large as the full moon.”


It’s August once again and so it marks the annual return of the Mars Hoax. The Mars Hoax Season reaches its height in August when emails are flying around the internet claiming Mars will be as big as the full Moon.

Well, the truth is, Mars can never appear as large as a full moon as seen from Earth.

I first received a forwarded email about this during 2003 or 2005 and almost every year, I see a copy of the same message in my inbox, with its contents being recycled and recirculated.

According to some analysis done by researchers, the email began circulating since 2003. The original message somewhat looks like the one below:

“The Red Planet is about to be spectacular! 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. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287. Due to the way Jupiter’s gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbit, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the Last 5,000 years, but it may be as long as 60,000 years before it happens again.

The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles (55,763,108 km) of Earth and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky. It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide. At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. Mars will be easy to spot. At the beginning of August it will rise in the east at 10 p.m. and reach its azimuth at about 3 a.m.

By the end of August when the two planets are closest, Mars will rise at nightfall and reach its highest point in the sky at 12:30 a.m. That’s pretty convenient to see something that no human being has seen in recorded history. So, mark your calendar at the beginning of August to see Mars grow progressively brighter and brighter throughout the month. Share this with your children and grandchildren. NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN.”

Well, some of the things mentioned here are true. During 2003, when this hoax started, Mars really did come within 35 million miles of Earth, the closest in recorded history.  That really was an unusually close approach and Mars appeared much brighter than usual.  The problem is that the original article had a line about when viewed through a telescope at 75x (75 times actual size) Mars would appear the same size as the full Moon.  In other words, Mars to the unaided eye, would be 1/75 as large as the full Moon (not nearly as impressive).It will look like a bright red star, a pinprick of light, certainly not as wide as the full Moon.

Moon and Mars comparison

If Mars did come close enough to rival the Moon, its gravity would alter Earth’s orbit and raise terrible tides.

Mars has a very elliptical orbit so sometimes we have closer approaches than others.  The most recent opposition (closest approach) occurred on January 29th, 2010 and Mars was about 99 million kilometers (about 60 million miles) away. However, Mars was not as bright at the 2010 opposition as it can be. Depending on the opposition, Mars can be as close as 35 million miles from Earth just like the case in 2003, when Mars came minutely closer to Earth than it had been in almost 60,000 years. These very close martian oppositions happen every 15 or 17 years. They happen when Earth passes between the sun and Mars within a few weeks of Mars’ perihelion (the point in its orbit when it is closest to the sun).

Still, Mars is fascinating to look at. This month, Mars can be spotted in the western sky after sunset with the other naked eye planets Saturn, Venus and Mercury.

For further reading, the following articles may be useful:

Beware the Mars Hoax

Mars August 2010


How can you see Mars in July and August 2010

As a piece of advice, when you receive some emails you really feel compelled to forward, read again, google it and confirm its authenticity before forwarding them 😀


image credits:

(Mars) http://www.hubblesite.org

(Moon and Mars) Mars NASA/STSci; Moon David Le Conte.  Graphic: David Le Conte.