Scorpius: My early morning companion


Most mornings at 6:05 a.m. you’ll find me standing at a bus stop, patiently awaiting the arrival of the bus that brings me to work. Not a bad ride, actually. What would normally be a 25 minute drive is a 45 minute trip, during which I have the freedom to read a book, be online or listen to some tunes with my eyes shut.

The other morning I noticed that, as I’m facing south, Scorpius is nice and bright and easy to spot. Now, according to tradition, I’m ‘a Scorpio,’ but that discussion will have to wait [tease, tease].

Looking south at 6:30 AM, MST, from the Salt Lake valley area

Looking south at 6:30 AM, MST, from the Salt Lake valley area

Scorpius is usually thought of as a summer or autumn constellation, when it is visible in the warm, evening skies after sundown. But, the sky we see at night in August is the sky we see pre-dawn in February. And so it is with Scorpius. The familiar fish hook, or ‘J-shape’ of Scorpius is dominated by the bright red star Antares.

Zoomed in view showing Antares and M4

Zoomed in view showing Antares and M4

Antares is a respectably bright magnitude +1 star about 600 light years away. Antares is a huge red giant star, so big, in fact, that if it were placed at the center of our solar system, its outer edge would lie about halfway between Mars and Jupiter (in the asteroid belt). Its size is 750 or so times the diameter of our sun, but only 15 times as massive, making Antares a very low-density star. Indications are that this is a star near the end of its life and would probably go supernova in the astronomically-speaker near future. Antares is also very close to the ecliptic.  With it’s brightness, location and brilliant red color, Antares can easily be mistaken for the planet Mars. In fact, the name Antares means ‘like Mars.’ Mars will be approaching Antares later this year (October), but the two will quickly be lost in the sunlight as the Sun passes by Antares in late-November to early-December.

About 1.5 degrees to the right of Antares is a star cluster, M4, known as the ‘Cat’s Eye’ cluster. This cluster is easily visible with binoculars or a small telescope at magnitude +7.5. M4 is only 7200 light years away from us, making it one of the closest clusters to the solar system.

Antares and M4 are due south around 6:30 a.m. right now, and well worth a look.

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