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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 5:16 pm | Fair 62º


Dennis Mammana: Antares, My Favorite Star of Summer

View the star Antares after dark this week. Click to view larger
View the star Antares after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

“If you’ve seen one star, you’ve seen ’em all.” That’s a phrase I’ve heard many times over my long astronomy career.

I suppose it’s true to one who seldom peers at the nighttime sky. It’s really too bad, though, because those of us who spend more time looking up than down know there are few statements farther from the truth.

It may also be tough for some to imagine that one could actually have a favorite star. But I do, and I’d be willing to bet that most experienced stargazers do as well.

The reason, you see, is that stars — like people — have their own personalities. Once we get to know them as individuals, they take on many charms and quirks that are unique to them.

Trouble is that most of us don’t ever make the effort to get to know the stars. And that’s a cosmic shame.

My favorite star, you ask? Antares, the brightest in the constellation Scorpius, the scorpion, which appears low in the southeastern sky during late evening this week.

With all the stars in the heavens, why would I choose this particular one? I think of Antares as my favorite because I remember watching it intently as a child.

Antares was visible in the summertime sky, when school was out and the weather was warm. Quite often during my childhood, there was the smell of freshly mown lawns in the air, and folks were out around the neighborhood. Lying back on the cool grass of my backyard, I gazed wide-eyed as Antares rose above the Coursens’ house and shone its ruddy glow through the sultry summertime haze.

What warm and comforting memories these are from such a magical time of discovery. Even today — wherever I find myself on this huge planet — as Antares appears in the sky after dark I get a huge smile on my face. I joyfully greet my closest celestial childhood friend and reminisce about the wonderful times we’ve spent together.

Today, of course, I recognize Antares as a red supergiant that is nearing the end of its stellar life. The star is so huge that if brought to our solar system and placed where the sun is, its atmosphere would engulf the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and probably even Mars.

And it’s so distant that the light we see tonight has been traveling through space for more than half a millennium.

In other words, if there were a race of stargazers on a planet orbiting this aging and dying star — something that is quite unlikely, by the way — and they had a telescope capable of monitoring activity on Earth, right now, they would be watching the early decades of the Italian Renaissance ... in real time. How cool is that?

To me, it’s all these marvelous bits of information that make a star like Antares even more personable. So the next time you’re out gazing at the glistening stars and you feel a tendency to dismiss them as all being alike, take some time to get to know them as individuals.

After all, stars are people, too!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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