Image of Antares surrounded in nebulae
Digitized Sky Survey - STScI/NASA, Colored & Healpixed by CDS

Several weeks ago, I was packing up my little robotic telescope after imaging Comet Tsuchinshan-ATLAS (C/2023 A3) when I beheld a heartening sight: peeking above the trees was the head of the constellation Scorpius, with Antares at its heart. My breath caught, and I was pinned to the spot. The red-orange star was on the rise. Antares and I had just spotted each other for the first time this year.

Decades ago, when I was in middle school, the motor on my family’s sailboat broke down as the sun was setting. A kindly older couple rescued us. They welcomed us aboard and towed our boat behind theirs. The husband gave me a tour of the darkening sky while I stood beside him at the wheel, captivated as he traced the claws and swooping curves of the massive constellation Scorpius.

“And see that bright orange star there?” he asked, pointing overhead. “That’s Antares, the jewel at the heart of the scorpion.”

I was mesmerized. I hadn’t known a scorpion could be so stunningly beautiful, or so huge. I was seeing “my” constellation for the first time. My maternal grandmother often reminded me that I was a complicated Scorpio in a family of easy-going Libras — I was even gifted topaz or citrine birthstone jewelry, when I preferred amethyst. I believed I was dark and problematic. But the Scorpion in the sky was graceful and majestic, the topaz-colored star at its heart a burning mystery. That night on a stranger’s boat, I saw myself in the starry sky.

I’ve loved Antares ever since.

In the ensuing years, however, getting a good view of my favorite star has been a challenge. I grew up in a busy East Coast city with heavy light pollution. I learned how to spot Antares, but its host constellation was often obscured by the too-bright sky. Now living at a more northern latitude, I’m lucky if I can spot the top half of the Scorpion; the elegant body and looping tail sit below my visible horizon. But that’s okay, as long as I can see Antares.

When we finally had a run of clear nights in June, I spent one of those evenings scouting the best spots in the yard to view and image Antares. Not only does the orange star appear low on the Portland horizon, there’s the additional challenge of a tall neighborhood tree sticking straight up in the south, like a giant middle finger right where Antares likes to hang out. I wanted more than glimpses through leaves and branches.

So I tracked the star’s progress across the sky into the wee hours of the morning. Roughly every 30 minutes, I went outside to wander around in the dark, with a confused but loyal Danelab following close behind. After a few hours, I identified a single spot in the driveway obstructed only by a nearby power line. Where there wasn’t too much interference from the nearby streetlight. I could observe Antares near its highest point, still quite low in the southern sky.

The next night, I set up my Dwarf 2 to image Antares and nearby globular clusters M4 and NGC 6144. Then I read more about my favorite star while I waited for the image to build. This “rival of Mars” still has surprises and secrets to reveal. I hadn’t known that Antares is actually a binary system, in which the brighter, red supergiant Scorpii A (which I already knew and loved) has a companion: the dimmer main sequence star, Scorpii B.

Unfortunately, that magnificence didn’t quite come across on my camera. Although I was astonished by the star’s intensity, a contest-winning image of Antares this is not. Even if I fail at bringing out the surrounding Antares Nebula — my newbie post-processing skills are below mediocre — I can enjoy my amateur work or more professional images long after Scorpius has set to the west, when the skies are thick with clouds, or just when I’m feeling down.

Because whenever I see Antares, I am transported back to that night on the Chesapeake Bay when starlit strangers conveyed my family to safety and comfort. I remember the gift a kind adult gave an anxious child. That experience bonded me to Antares for a lifetime. Every time I spot Scorpius in the night sky, I feel encouraged that I might have a place among the stars. Antares, the Scorpion’s fiery heart, is central to my personal stargazing lore and something near to my soul. I feel seen when standing in its light.


Image of Douglas Duckett

Douglas Duckett

July 13, 2024 at 7:29 am

What a lovely remembrance! Thank you for sharing it. You are a gifted writer.

Douglas Duckett
Cincinnati, Ohio

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Image of Jen Willis

Jen Willis

July 13, 2024 at 3:15 pm

Thanks, Douglas! I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

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