Astronomical pranks of April fools' past

April 1, 2013 by David Dickinson, Universe Today
An April Fools’ Day conjunction of Pluto & Jupiter, the likes of which you’ll never see! Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS(Jupiter) & NASA/ESA & M. Buie of the SWRI (Pluto) Heavily photo-shopped by author

The first day of April is always a traditional time for pranks and puns, and astronomers and scientists aren't above an April Fools' Day shenanigan or two. Hey, I gotta admit, as a freelance science journalist, even my radar will be up tomorrow as I'm sure that someone will try to slide some wowzers by the credulous media, as they always have in the past. If the aliens wanted to conquer the Earth it's wide open to 'em on April 1st, I'm just sayin'. Who would believe the tweets were for real, as they landed ray guns ablaze on the White House lawn? Trust us; you won't see such April Fools' hi-jinks from Universe Today. If you read it here, the alien invasion is for real, and you can begin stockpiling food and ammo appropriately in the best tradition of Falling Skies.

Here are just some of the classic astronomical April Fools' jokes perpetrated in the past:

In 1974, John Gribbin published The Jupiter Effect, claiming that a Grand Alignment of the planets would spell doomsday for the Earth on March 10th, 1982. On April 1st 1976, Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore made an announcement along a similar vein to BBC listeners. A rare conjunction of the planets Pluto (which was still classified as a planet at the time) & Jupiter would weaken the gravitational field of the Earth at precisely 9:47AM. This would cause the law of gravity to become temporarily suspended, and cause things to fly about. Big hint: Pluto was nowhere near the gas giant at the time. Not that it would matter or have any consequence for the Earth! Although the hoax was quickly revealed, that didn't stop several listeners from calling in and reporting observed results from the fake Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational effect!

The first star party? Galileo shows off the sky in Saint Mark’s square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. Credit: Illustration in the Public Domain

Many questionable astrophysical papers have been spotted in the wild trying to sneak past the guardians-that-be over the years on & around April 1st. On April Fools' past, we've learned that Schrödinger's Cat is not alone, the supposed discovery of the "bigon" particle, and that the "non-detection of the tooth fairy" has been reported. Hey, never let it be said that science geeks lack a sense of humor. What's especially amazing is when one of these tall tales actually makes it past the credulous media and into print!

One of our favorites hit the servers last year on March 30th just in time to gain traction for April Fools' Day with the cryptic title "On the influence of the Illuminati in astronomical adaptive optics." OK, I'll admit we didn't question the veracity of the claim for oh, like, maybe a tenth of a second. For those without enlightenment into the world of Woo, the Illuminati are purported to be the shadow cult organization going back to the Middle Ages that's supposed to be behind, well, every nefarious plot in modern society. "They put the eye over the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill, man…" as some true believers will claim. And while they didn't have adaptive optics technology way back in Galileo's time, the mock study does assert a tenuous link between the Illuminati and the "astronomical rise" of Brittany Spears and Lady Gaga.

Are Martians secretly hollowing out a base on the Moons of Barsoom? The Moons of Mars were also the setting for an April Fools' prank in 1959. The Martian moons are bizarre in their own right. Orbiting at 6,000 & 20,060 kilometres above the surface of the Red Planet, Phobos & Deimos are almost certainly captured asteroids. In fact, Phobos orbits its primary closer than any other moon in the solar system. Phobos will crash into Mars millions of years in the future.

Astronomical pranks of April fools’ past
Phobos (above) and Deimos (bottom) close up; no Martian construction projects noted. Credit: NASA

The hoax was perpetrated when Walter Scott Houston, posing as Dr. Arthur Hayall of the fictitious University of the Sierras made a claim in the Great Plains Observer that Phobos & Deimos were in fact artificial satellites. Though the joke ran its course, the idea has cropped up in fringe circles over the years. Russian scientist Iosif Shklovsky made a similar allusion years later, asserting that the low density of Phobos indicated that was hollow (!) Mariner 9 returned the first close-up views of Phobos in 1971, showing a decidedly asteroid-looking appearance. Of course, this hasn't stopped the likes of folks like Richard Hoagland (he of the face on Mars) from resurrecting the outlandish claim, all of which started as a practical joke. And of course, with the advent of the Internet, you don't have to wait until April 1st to receive modern day hoax emails proclaiming "MARS WILL APPEAR AS BIG AS THE FULL MOON!!!" which now apparently happens every August.

Spurious moons are apparently the "low-hanging fruit" of astronomical April Fools' pranks. In 2012, an image of a purported moon of the planet Mercury's as discovered by the MESSENGER spacecraft appeared in the JPL Photojournal. The captioning declared the moon had been named Caduceus and was 70 metres in diameter. Perhaps such a prank is appealing because there's nothing immediately outlandish about the idea. New moons get discovered periodically on first reconnaissance missions past planets. For a brief time in 1974, Mariner 10 project scientists did indeed think they had discovered a Mercurial moon. Reading on through the press release, however, revealed that a collision course of MESSENGER with the moon was set to cause it to "arrive at Earth by 2014." The "moon" also bared a suspicious resemblance to the asteroid 243 Ida as seen by the Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft in 1993.

A moon for Mercury… (or not!) Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University/APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Some April Fools' hoaxes have presented ideas that have actually gained scientific traction in reality over the years. On March 31st, 2005, NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website contained the teaser "Water on Mars!" for its next presentation to follow on the next day. A flurry of discussion followed; was there a discovery from the Spirit & Opportunity rovers forthcoming? We should've checked the calendar first. The next day, APOD featured water… in a glass, sitting atop a Mars bar. What's ironic is that recent announcements from the Mars Science Laboratory support the idea of ancient water on the Red Planet, so the MSL may well have had the last laugh.

Sulfate-rich sandstone imaged by Opportunity (left) and Curiosity (right). Both hint at ancient surface water on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS

The Museum of Hoaxes also hosts a list of astronomy & space-themed April Fools' Day pranks that have been perpetrated over the years. From a Soviet space capsule landing outside of Kankakee, Illinois to life discovered on Jupiter in 1996, it's all enshrined for the curious. One of our faves is Google's 2004 announcement that they were accepting applications at a new research center… based on the Moon in Copernicus crater. The ability to survive "with limited access to such modern conveniences as soy low-fat lattes," was cited as a prerequisite, but a sushi chef and two massage therapists would be on site. At least the assignment wouldn't be totally austere!

Astronomical pranks of April fools’ past
Closeup of Copernicus crater region… note the distinct lack of soy lattes! Credit: Author

What astronomical hi-jinks await us tomorrow as we flip our calendars over to April 1st, 2013? Feel free to tell us here at Universe Today of your true tales of April Fools' astronomy pranks past & present that you've spotted in the wild. Think twice before re-tweeting that link tomorrow, and don't believe those reports of "nearby gamma-ray bursts of doom" or "alien invasions…" or at least, wait until you've seen the "greens of their eyes!"

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1 / 5 (6) Apr 01, 2013
Pluto still IS classified as a planet by many astronomers. Please do not present one view in this ongoing debate as fact when this is not the case. As a writer, I've made an annual tradition of writing April 1 articles that make the IAU look like fools. Past articles have been about plans to demote Mercury, the IAU closing its doors, official condemnations of astronomers who resist their definitions, and now a problem with "unhelpful" amateur astronomers.
3.8 / 5 (10) Apr 02, 2013
Pluto is a wimp. It's a moon-like planet wannabe. For years it hid out with its Kupier Belt orbital delinquents just making a bunch of gravitational noise hoping to get noticed. That happened all right. While it was trying to spoof a planet, hosting its own satellites and such, it was acting all cocky, going off the ecliptic and transiting its neighbor's orbit with an excessive ellipse just for spite. It took a good man like Neil DeGrasse Tyson to take action and put that hoar-frosted hooligan dwarf in its place.

Just because of Pluto, astronomers are now suspicious of several other planets. You Pluto lovers can be real proud of yourselves. I hope you're happy.
5 / 5 (5) Apr 02, 2013
Well I've got one word for you - Jupiter. Now there's a planet! Lots of color and it can take on a comet with no complaint. A little gassy maybe, but it makes up for it in sheer size and got moons you can be proud of - active moons, not teeny-tiny frozen ones.

Pluto is a little moron. Sheesh!
4 / 5 (8) Apr 02, 2013
Okay. I think I see what's going on here. You guys obviously have some kind of orbital-body mass bias. That is an an acquired prejudice in some astronomy circles. You need to give this guy some time. Maybe he's still accreting.
5 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2013
Phobos will crash into Mars millions of years in the future.

Hope we don't have any colonies on Mars then. Although that would be a sight to see (from a safe distance, though)

As for Pluto: Who cares? Does changing a label change anything about the nature of the object? No. A label alone is irrelevant from the scientific point of view - so any 'amateur astronomers' or somesuch still clamoring for the reinstatment of the label should be asking themselves whether they'd not better switch over to astrology (where labels matter).
3.7 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2013
Maybe he's still accreting.

You don't know that. Prove it.
5 / 5 (4) Apr 02, 2013
Laurel, I know who you are and what your mission is. It's apparent that you like astronomy, but you must realize your view of Pluto is strictly a romantic one and not scientific at all. Science is about making discoveries, coming to realizations, and fine-tuning our body of knowledge. It fundamentally requires correcting classifications which were based on previously inadequate observation. If you thought you were of Irish lineage, but your DNA said you were strictly Asian, you could still claim to be Irish, but genetically you're not.

Pluto IS unique in that it is the largest of it's kind, but it occupies a different niche than the inner planets. And there are other frozen bodies just like it, orbiting in it's realm, also unlike the inner planets. It's a classification. It is not a victim. It's science.

The vote-to-demote, was inevitably certain. If someone is clinically dead it doesn't require all the doctor's in the country to declare it. The evidence says it's so.
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2013
I apologize if I accused anyone here of astro-bigotry. I must have been at a moment of apogee. We're all brothers in this heliosphere. I see that now. Sorry.

April Fools comment. I was joking and got ranked a 1.

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