Week of Jan. 19-25, 2020
If you're like most folks, you don't like to rise before the sun to head out into the cold winter air and gaze skyward. But this week, you must, for a historically significant sight is waiting there for you to enjoy.
As dawn is breaking this week, take a look low toward the southeastern sky. There you will see two fairly bright reddish-orange "stars." One — the fainter of the two — is the planet Mars. The brighter is the star Antares.
Its reddish tinge certainly caught the attention of ancient stargazers who recognized its similarity to Mars. The only difference they could tell was that Mars drifted around the sky, while Antares appeared constantly fixed to the constellation Scorpius, the scorpion.
Scorpius is one of the oldest of the Egyptian hieroglyphics and appears in inscriptions predating the third millennium B.C. In ancient China, the figure was seen not as a scorpion but as a major portion of the large and regal figure of the Azure Dragon, or Dragon of the East, and in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, Scorpius represents the scorpion whose sting caused the death of Orion.
But it was on those rare occasions when Mars passed this constellation that the ancients noted the resemblance of Mars and Antares, and it was this observation that led them to name the star Antares, which means "rival of Mars."
For all their similarities in appearance, these two celestial bodies could not be more different. Mars is a solid world not unlike the Earth, but it's only about half of Earth's diameter and surrounded by a very thin atmosphere. It appears to our eyes to glow reddish-orange because sunlight reflects off its rust-colored surface.
Antares, on the other hand, is a star that produces its own energy and is one of the largest in existence. This red supergiant's diameter is so great that if we were to bring the star to our solar system and replace the sun with its giant red orb, its atmosphere would completely engulf the orbits of the planets Mercury, Venus and Earth — and, quite possibly, Mars.
Mars and Antares are significantly different distances from us as well. Mars currently lies about 189.4 million miles from us, while Antares lies at a distance of about 3,500 trillion miles away — so far that the light we see from it began its journey in our direction around the start of the fifteenth century!
Since Mars doesn't often appear close enough to Antares for us to compare the two, when opportunities like this arise, well, so must we!
Each morning over the next week or so, you'll see Mars appear in a slightly different position relative to Antares as it drifts in its orbit in front of the stars of Scorpius. On Jan. 18, Mars will appear to the upper left of Antares at dawn, its closest approach during this visit. If you have trouble finding it, don't worry. On the morning of Jan. 20, the thin crescent moon will join the scene and will appear just above the red planet.
Check out this pair and you'll understand exactly why the ancients viewed them as celestial rivals!
Visit Dennis Mammana at facebook.com/DennisMammana. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.