Sunday, April 3, 2011

Best April Fool’s Joke

Ancient Mariner and Mercury.  Photo credit:  NASA.
     When NASA released the picture above last Friday, not a few astronomy bloggers and web sites were briefly taken in. The original story was that Messenger, NASA’s new probe to the planet Mercury, had captured this image of the old Mariner 10 probe zooming past Mercury, 36 years after NASA’s last communication with the spacecraft. The claim was that Mariner 10, which surveyed Mercury in 1974 and 1975, had fallen into a “resonant” orbit around the sun that put it near Mercury once every Earth year…on April 1st. Apart from the dimly visible difference in the dark backgrounds, showing where two images were playfully stitched together, there were other clues from NASA that should have alerted the blogosphere. (Your author was saved from falling for the prank by spending a weekend without web access.) In any case, those punsters at NASA called Mariner 10 the “Ancient Mariner.” Their press release was also replete with quotations from the Coleridge poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” With all the rough developments in the news lately, at least someone is keeping a bit of literary-science levity.

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