By David Ward
Maybe you have noticed a very bright red light shining steadily low in the southeast not long after it gets dark. No, it is not a UFO or the mysterious Planet X. Actually, it’s Mars and it is closer to us than it has been for the last 10 years.
Every two years and a couple of months, the earth zooms by the red planet on its journey around the sun. We are on the inside track, so to speak, closer to the sun and going faster. That is what is happening now. Later this summer, we will leave Mars behind in the dust and it will grow dimmer and dimmer.
Mars was named for the Roman god of war, probably because its reddish color reminded the ancient people of blood. He was a handsome figure, but cruel, who loved nothing better than the blood lust of battle. He had a thing going on with Venus, the gorgeous goddess of love and beauty. It was quite the scandal up on Mt. Olympus. With her he had two sons, Phobos, fear, and Deimos, terror. They often accompanied their father in battle and the three were quite terrifying, especially when Mars wore his cloak sewn from the skins of men he had killed in battle.
His two sons are now immortalized as the names of the two tiny moons that circle the red planet. Up in the sky right now, Mars is traveling in a retrograde or backward motion to the west. All the planets move in this way when they are closest to the earth and it drove the ancient astronomers crazy. They could not imagine why the planets did that.
When Galileo and Copernicus came up with the brilliant idea that the planets traveled around the sun rather than the earth, it all fell into place. It was obvious that this backward motion was really a changing perspective on our view of the planets. You can see the retrograde motion of Mars yourself by watching it from night to night this summer, moving slowly to the right.
Look just below Mars and a little to the left for another reddish object, but slightly dimmer. This one is twinkling, which means it is a star, the red giant star Antares. The name means “rival of Mars” in Greek because of its similar color. Close together in the sky, the two are vastly different. Mars is tiny, just barely half the size of the earth. Antares is big, far bigger than our sun. In fact it is bigger than the orbit of Mars around the sun, which is over 141,000,000 miles across. Also, Antares is over 70,000,000 times farther away than Mars.
Looking at Antares, you are seeing one of the largest and most luminous stars up there. It shines perhaps as much as 60,000 times as bright as our sun. It is a star right at the end of its life cycle and probably has less than a million years before it explodes into a supernova. Then it will truly live up to its name “rival of Mars.” For a few weeks it will be so bright, it will shine like a dimmer sun in the daytime. By night it will cast shadows by its light.
Remarkably, Antares is only about 12 million years old, a mere infant compared to our sun’s ripe old age of 5 billion years. What happened to Antares? Was it afflicted by some dreadful childhood disease that stars come down with? Actually, it is just overweight, and heavy stars gobble up their fuel too fast dooming them to an early demise.
Another interesting about Antares is that it is about 20 times heavier than the sun but millions of times bigger. That means it is quite rarified and has a density less than one-millionth of our sun. If it was not so hot you could fly a space ship right through it and not even know it!
Check out Saturn
Now look above Antares and to the left of Mars for the yellowish, steady shining Saturn, the magnificent ringed planet. He was named for the Roman god who was one of the Titans, an older race of gods before the Olympians took over the heavens and the earth. The ancient Romans believed that when Saturn ruled their kingdom, he brought a golden age to their empire and everything and everybody lived in harmony.
The bright light high up in the southwest just after it gets dark is Jupiter, king of the gods and largest of the planets. The beautiful Venus is dawdling along on the far side of the sun and will not return to grace our skies until late fall.
If you have a small telescope, be sure to check out the three bright planets up there. Mars will look like a perfectly round little ball, but you will not see much detail on it. Saturn will show you its beautiful rings and if you see a little star nearby, it is probably its largest moon Titan. Jupiter will reveal its four largest moons and maybe its cloud bands on the surface of the planet. If you do not have a telescope, catch me up at Sun Mountain Lodge this summer and I will show it all to you.