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Astronomer discovers incredible never-before-seen object… which turns out to just be Mars

Published Mar 22nd, 2018 2:03PM EDT
mars discovery
Image: NASA

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It’s not easy being an astronomer. Making observations of distant objects is challenging in many ways, not least of which is making sure that the never-before-seen things you are documenting are actually new. That’s a lesson professor Peter Dunsby learned the hard way this week, when he announced the discovery of what he believed to be an incredibly bright object in a part of the sky where it shouldn’t have been.

Incredibly excited about his discovery, Dunsby relayed the information to the appropriate astronomy channels, asking for scientists to join him in observing what appeared to be something entirely new. The Astronomer’s Telegram, a popular reporting network for scientists, helped amplify his discovery by sending it to countless other scientists. It wasn’t long before some of those bright minds took a look for themselves and realized that, unfortunately, the object being reported as new was actually just Mars. Oops!

The bulletin that was sent reads as follows:

Peter Dunsby (University of Cape Town) reports the detection of a very bright optical transient in the region between the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae based on observations obtained from Cape Town on 20 March 2018, between 01:00 and 03:45 UT. The object was visible throughout the full duration of the observations and not seen when this field was observed previously (08 March 2018). The optical transients is at least first magnitude and is located at the following coordinates: RA (2000): 18h 04m 50s Declination (2000.0): -23d 29m 58s The coordinates are accurate to a few arcseconds. There is no obvious counterpart at this position on the Digital Sky Survey plates. Observations were obtained using an 80mm refractor. The attached URL show the image of this field (2.3 x 1.7 degrees, plate scale of 9 arcseconds per pixel) on 20 March 2018. The optical transient is the brightest star in the field. Further observations are strongly encouraged to establish the nature of this very bright optical transient.

The object was so bright that it seemed impossible that nobody had previously spotted it, which only added to the mystery. That mystery, along with Dunsby’s dreams of slapping his name in the history books, was dashed when scientists noted that it was just Mars cruising through the night sky.

“The object reported in ATel 11448 has been identified as Mars,” The Astronomer’s Telegram explains in a followup message. “Our sincere apologies for the earlier report and the inconvenience caused.”

Shortly after the erroneous bulletin was corrected, The Astronomer’s Telegram issued a special award to Dunsby for his remarkable “discovery”:

Ouch! Dunsby, to his credit, definitely seems to be taking the embarrassing mess in stride: