Lately I’ve noticed something curious in the evenings when I turn my head in a southerly direction. Mars has been very prominent, and so has Saturn. And so is Antares. Saturn is cool because of its rings, and since it didn’t always have rings and will eventually lose them I think we’re very lucky to be living in a time when it stands out from the other gas giants although they also have their own rings, but let’s save the jokes about rings around Uranus for another time. It’s really Mars and Antares that interest me right now.
Antares was so named by ancient Greek astronomers because its reddish color made it seem like Mars. Well, Ares, technically, but modern astronomers decided to stick with Latin names, except in the case of Uranus, and now I’m conflicted over whether I should insert a joke here about Uranus being a gas giant but I feel guilty about inserting anything in Uranus when I have a serious point I want to make about Mars and Antares.
Traditionally Mars has been seen as a harbinger of war which makes me wonder if ancient astronomers saw Antares as cancelling out its influence. After all its name means “opposite of Mars” and can even be translated as “the rival of Mars”. When Antares and Mars were so close together did that mean peace? Or was it an evil omen? Did the red color of both double the influence?
I haven’t found any evidence either way, so I’m going to slap my own interpretation on the whole thing. I think Mars is misnamed. It shouldn’t have been named for a war god since it really seems like Mars brings out the best in us, especially in the space age. In both fiction and reality it’s inspired a strong desire for exploration and as our second-closest neighbor and a fellow terrestrial planet Mars seems like our first real stepping stone into the universe.
Antares may be just as misnamed. Instead of being the opposite of Mars it should inspire us too. As a star, as a red supergiant, it is very different from Mars or from any planet, not to mention our own sun, since it’s roughly 883 times bigger. It’s also about 470 light years away which would make it a really long trip and you don’t want to know what it costs just to call there. But when Antares and Mars are so close together, when we can see a resemblance between them, it should make us think about what we have in common with the rest of the universe. It should make us think about exploring and perhaps even traveling beyond our solar system and what we might find out there, and how whatever we find that seems different could just as easily be what we have in common.