Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s fine. Even the brightest minds slip up from time to time: Take the recent example of a particular chemical species, used in calculations for decades, which turned out to have never existed in the first place.
Now, as spotted by Motherboard, we have another delightful tale of curious self-correction. An astronomer, looking skyward, thought he’d discovered a brand-new celestial wonder in the night sky, but it eventually transpired that he’d simply re-discovered Mars all over again in a delightful tale of harmless human error.
One Prof. Peter Dunsby, a renowned cosmologist and keen astrophotographer at the University of Cape Town, made it onto The Astronomer’s Telegram on March 20, a bulletin for perusers of the shadows above our heads. Clearly, he was thrilled to have observed what he suspected was a newly discovered astronomical phenomenon.
Dunsby had reported “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.” Giving precise astronomical coordinates, the bulletin also noted that the object had “no obvious counterpart at this position on the Digital Sky Survey plates,” which suggested that whatever this cosmic curiosity was, it was brand new.
“The optical transient is the brightest star in the field,” it added. “Further observations are strongly encouraged to establish the nature of this very bright optical transient.”
The thrill of directly detecting a novel object in the night sky is, quite understandably, a huge thrill for any avid astronomical advocate. Sadly, this time around, it wasn’t to be.
A follow-up bulletin a few hours later simply read: “The object reported in ATel 11448 has been identified as Mars. Our sincere apologies for the earlier report and the inconvenience caused.”
The Astronomer’s Telegram certainly had a bit of a giggle: They manufactured a tongue-in-cheek certificate for Dunsby for his discovery of Mars on March 20, 2018.
“I was collecting sub-frames of the Lagoon/Triffid Nebulae for a long-term HDR astrophotography project overnight while I slept. My setup is automated,” Dunsby told IFLScience.
“In the morning I reviewed some of the frames and noticed the 'visitor'. I should have checked that it was something else before reporting,” he lamented.
Dunsby said that “it was a very unfortunate error and something I would very much like to forget!” – but he’s clearly seeing the bright side of this perfectly honest mistake too.
“I do, however, see the funny side of this little episode and I am glad that it has made some people smile. So I guess that’s good in a world where we don’t smile enough,” he added, rather movingly.