5 Harmless Astronomical Events That Scare People

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Events such as solar and lunar eclipses must have been terrifying to our earliest ancestors; just imagine primitive man cowering in terror as the Sun disappeared from the sky. Today, of course, we know better and these celestial events don’t scare us anymore … or do they? Sayings such as there’s a “bad Moon rising” and “born under a bad sign” have been around for years. But you don’t have to visit an astrology convention to find people vowing they will not sign financial documents while Mercury is in retrograde. And every August, social media buzzes with the hoax featuring a giant image of Mars the size of a full Moon. Sure, the universe could wipe us out tomorrow; a dinosaur-killer asteroid would spell a very bad day for the Earth. But the following events are really nothing to worry about.

 

5. Lunar Eclipses: The Blood Moon Prophecy

A series of total lunar eclipses in 2014 and 2015, including this one in September 2015, prompted one evangelist to call the eclipses a Biblical omen. © Folke Ashberg

A series of total lunar eclipses in 2014 and 2015, including this one in September 2015, prompted one evangelist to call the eclipses a Biblical omen. © Folke Ashberg

Thank evangelist John Hagee for this one, and of course, the Internet for giving it traction. In 2014 and 2015, a set of four total lunar eclipses — known as a tetrad — occurred. This isn’t all that uncommon, as a similar set of four eclipses occurred in 2003-2004. Hagee, however, chose to highlight the fact that the eclipses fell on the Jewish dates for Passover and Sukkot. Though this is a rarer occurrence, the months of the Jewish calendar begin with the full Moon, and a total lunar eclipse can only occur when the Moon reaches full, so you’d expect more than a few Jewish holidays to occasionally coincide with a lunar eclipse. Historians have even tried to peg the date of the crucifixion of Jesus on solar or lunar eclipses. During most eclipses, the Moon turns a deep red, thanks to the scattering of sunlight from around the limb of the Earth into the planet’s shadow. Hagee predicted gloom and doom in this latest “end of the world of the week” and the Blood Moon meme was born. All four eclipses came and went without the state of Israel collapsing, or other imagined disasters coming to pass.

 

4. Comets

Comet McNaught was one of the brightest comets of the past century.

Comet McNaught as seen over New Zealand in 2007. © Chris Wall

A good, bright comet is a once-in-a-generation spectacle. It also really seems to bring out the crackpots. In medieval times, the heavens were supposed to be perfect and unchanging, and the sudden appearances of these “hairy stars” could only be a bad omen. Shakespeare said, “the heavens blaze for the death of princes,” but also declared that “the fault lies not in the heavens … but within ourselves.” One (possibly apocryphal) story claims that Pope Callixtus III excommunicated Halley’s Comet following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. When Comet ISON was posed to potentially become the “Comet of the Century” in 2013, the Internet began to rumble with tales of conspiracies by “Big NASA” covering up an imminent impact. Yes, a doomsday comet striking the Earth would be a bad thing — but Earth is a pretty small target for such a once-every-million-years-plus event.

So what’s the harm if some people fear the next comet? Look no further than the Heavens-Gate mass suicide in 1997 during which 39 people took their lives, convinced that a UFO was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp.

 

3. Mercury in Retrograde

A color-enhanced view of Mercury taken by the MESSENGER probe. Mercury in retrograde is nothing to fear. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins/Carnegie Institution

A color-enhanced view of Mercury taken by the MESSENGER probe. Mercury in retrograde is nothing to fear. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins/Carnegie Institution

The innermost planet in our solar system seems to get blamed for everything. From our Earthly perspective, planets seem to move from west to east in the sky against the starry backdrop (known as prograde motion) from one night to the next. When one planet overtakes another, however, they seem to reverse direction, moving briefly backwards. Of course, this motion is an illusion of perspective. Yet some people are quick to attribute “Mercury in retrograde” as a cause for many Earthly woes. Every so often, the #mercuryretrograde hashtag will trend on social media, with some people claiming the event will disrupt communications, or that it’s a bad time to make important decisions or sign documents.

How did these fears arise? Perhaps it’s because speedy Mercury spends roughly a third of its 88-day orbit around the Sun in retrograde, providing an excellent chance it will coincide with bad events. Here’s a fun idea: the next time someone you know blames Mercury in retrograde for something bad that happened, ask them to explain exactly what is happening in the sky.

 

2. Planetary Alignments

The 1974 book The Jupiter Effect predicted destruction on Earth in 1982.

The 1974 book The Jupiter Effect isn’t the first time, or the last, someone predicted doom from a planetary alignment.

Another imaginary fear with astrological roots, planetary alignments are literally a matter of perspective. A grand alignment in 1982 was supposed to trigger the “Jupiter Effect,” with cataclysms to follow (none did, but the author of the book by that name did sell plenty of copies). On April Fool’s Day 1976, astronomer and author Sir Patrick Moore played a deliberate prank, stating that the “Pluto-Jovian Effect” would wreak havoc. Several callers to his radio show actually proclaimed witnessing people floating around, weightless. Here’s the reality: even the gravitational pull of massive Jupiter is tiny over such a vast distance. And such alignments and conjunctions, while appearing close as seen from the Earth, are actually widely spread out looking down on the solar system. Planets are simply a negligible source of gravity and light.

 

1. Mars at Opposition

Mars will never appear as large as the Moon in the night sky, despite annual warnings on social media.

Mars will never appear as large as the Moon in the night sky, despite annual warnings on social media.

It’s a modern-day hoax that now fills our email inbox every August. No, Mars can never appear as large as the full Moon as seen from the Earth, even at its closest. The rumor got its start during the historic close approach of Mars to Earth in 2003 … although even then, Mars appeared less than 1/60th the size of a full Moon. The hoax made the successful transition to social media, and is now forwarded/liked/retweeted by friends, coworkers and family members every August. Just where does this hoax go to survive the lean months, only to reemerge every August? And to top it off, oppositions of Mars actually happen once about every 26 months. We’ve got a good apparition of Mars this month, and expect the Mars Hoax to regain strength next time around in July 2018, when it’s nearly as close as the 2003 approach.

 

More: The Truth About Astrology

People spend millions of dollars on astrology-related items each year.

Astrology is a pseudoscience that too many people take seriously. © Nomad Soul

The ancient pseudoscience of astrology did influence early astronomy, but that’s where the similarities end. Modern science has shown us that we do, in fact, have an intimate relationship with the universe, just not in the superficial way that astrologers would suppose. The Sun powers life on Earth. Stars fused the very elements in our blood and bones. But looking at the movement of celestial bodies and believing they have influence over our everyday affairs doesn’t fit with science. As a final thought, the astrological signs laid out by the Greeks are now 2,000 years out of date, thanks to the 26,000-year wobble of Earth’s axis known as the Precession of the Equinoxes … all us Leos should actually be Cancers! Here’s a chart on LiveScience.com showing you your actual astrological sign.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.