Red Star

A short skystory by Michael Andersen, Moree, August 2018

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June nights can be cold, but not this one. It was a weekend and an almost seven-year-old was visiting her grandparents’ hobby farm. For her, the best thing about the farm was spending time with her grandfather under the celestial canopy and listening to his stories. Back home in the city the stars were mostly obliterated by light pollution but here, on the farm, the sky was dark and clear. She loved the old man’s stories, especially the ones about the stars and planets. She and her grandfather were kindred spirits. She liked what he liked, even down to what her Nan put on the dinner plate. “You two are twins born sixty years apart!” her Nan often joked.

They perched on an old eucalypt log and went through the ritual of naming the stars. The child identified the Southern Cross high in the winter sky with a cry of delight, and then the Pointers. She scanned the firmament for the Saucepan, which, as her grandfather explained, was really the belt and sword of Orion. “No Saucepan tonight,” he told her. “It rises with the dawn at this time of year.”

Every so often a shooting star left a fleeting scar across the sky, and for a couple of hours past sunset, they could see satellites orbiting Earth.

“What’s that bright star, Grandfather? Is that the Evening Star?”

The old man secured his balance on the log and looked up. “No, Darling, that’s not it. The Evening Star is which planet?”

The little girl inhaled deeply and held her breath while she thought. “Venus!” she said at last.

“That’s right! As it happens, Venus is also the Morning Star! And look, there’s Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, a huge ball of gas about one thousand times the size of Earth. It has over sixty moons! Imagine that!”

She shook her curls and looked at him in amazement, then made herself more comfortable on the log to continue her observations. Soon she was leaning against him and humming ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ to herself.

************

Fran Long loved her work at the observatory, especially the night shift gazing through the big old telescope that was so modern back in the early 1970s. Her passion for astronomy was ignited by a visit to a planetarium when she was a school girl. What excited her most now though was the mathematics of her science and sharing it with others.

Old Saxon Flynn had been at the observatory longer than anyone could remember. He was affectionately called Gal by all his colleagues, even by the cleaning staff. He didn’t mind, not at all. To him, this nick-name, the diminutive of the Father of Astronomy, Galileo, was the greatest compliment they could give him.

Gal and Fran often played games to keep their eyes and minds active on the nights they were rostered together. Some nights their games were very simple: just keeping count of the meteors they saw, for example. On this night a technician gave them a cue. He was calibrating some equipment early in their shift and blurted out a single word: “Red!” So that night’s game became spotting red things in the sky. Their conversation quickly shifted to Mars: the information being sent back from the Rovers, the discovery of frozen water at the poles, the slim possibility that this dead red planet could support life … They debated that possibility, but facts were what they dealt with and it was not their job to speculate about life on Mars or on any other planet. And yet …!

************

Cicadas sounded pizzicato in the background as a hint of the waning moon was falling slowly into the western horizon. “Grandfather, look, look, it’s Mars! I know it’s Mars because its red. I was learnt about it in school.”

The old man’s eyes widened as he looked to where she was pointing. This child reminded him so much of her mother at that age. “Two things, little one, “he said. “The first is you were taught it at school. The second that’s not Mars! Mars is a planet, that’s a star. It’s called Antares – which kind of means ‘the same as Mars.’

The stars shone so fiercely they seemed close enough to touch. “Grandfather, why are there stars?”

“Ah! A big question little one! I don’t know the answer but maybe the night sky is God’s jewelry box and each of those specks of light is special just like Antares, just like Mars.”

A mopoke called in the distance. Its mate answered across the darkness. “Tell me about Antares, please Grandfather?” the little girl asked. He sat her on his lap and told her the story.

“It was the time when the stars were young. A time before people populated the earth. The sky would have been vastly different then. Comets and meteoroids zoomed through vast voids between different worlds, and Mars was bright, bright red in the night sky.

“The constellations were vying for a permanent place in the cosmos. The great hunter we now call Orion did not yet exist, and the night sky was dominated by Scorpius, the mighty scorpion. He was king of his part of the heavens, a harsh, mean and cruel king. He was always attacking the weak, always ready to defend the strong. He had no friends amongst the stars and hunted alone taking what he wanted when he wanted. His big wide claws always seemed ready to snatch his quarry. His tail was ever ready to inflict a sting.

“This was so long ago that many of the stars were not where they are today, and the planets were still working out their routes around the Sun. Some of the stars were restless, especially Antares who roamed the galaxy trying to find a place for herself in the universe. She was big and beautiful, and yet had no idea of her beauty. Mars was young and small yet very strong and brave. He was a soldier and commander. His role was to guard the rocky planets. He did this with an army of asteroids which stood on permanent guard all the way around Sun.

Soon Mars noticed Antares. He’d never seen another red body in the cosmos before, nor anything as beautiful. On one orbit he thought Antares was paying particular attention to him. He called out to the red beauty, and she answered his call. Soon the two became friends. They discovered that they both liked to play games. Antares could move freely, while Mars was tied to the Sun by gravity, so she tried to be in a different place each time Mars completed his sojourn around his parent star.

The little girl interrupted the story. “What is gravity?” she asked. Her grandfather answered as simply as he could and continued the story.

“As time and orbits went by the two cosmic bodies, the rust-red planet and the supergiant star, grew to love one other. Antares waited for Mars at the end of each of his solar orbits. Mars would try to circle the sun faster, but it always took the same time. Antares always waited.

“Other stars and planets were also finding their ways in this young universe. On Planet Jupiter great storms were raging. Dust and ice were forming rings around Saturn, and lazy Uranus fell on his back and remained that way, and the watery world next to Mars was rapidly evolving into the planet we now call Earth. An exciting time in the solar system, but Mars and Antares had eyes only for one another.

“In a universe that is as good as infinite, an infinite number of things can happen,” the old man explained. “So while she was waiting for Mars at the end of one of his orbits Antares noticed that the scorpion was stalking her. She fled. Was there anywhere to hide in this universe? Where was her champion? Waves of darkness lifted her through space as the giant predator moved closer. Mars was somewhere on the other side of his sun. He was thinking of her but was unaware of the danger she faced. The scorpion’s enormous pincers reached out for Antares and missed. In a panic she rushed through the star-lit heavens looking for shelter. The odds were against this red star.

The scorpion moved closer. He was toying with her. Then he pounced.

“Mars completed his orbit and looked for Antares. He couldn’t see her. The firmament was emptier than ever. He cried. Two tears fell and stayed with him as the moons we now know as Deimos and Phobos.”

Eons passed yet Mars never stopped looking for Antares.

“But Grandfather, we can see Antares, and we can sometimes see Mars. Why can’t Mars see Antares?” the little girl asked.

“Didn’t you listen to the story, little love? Scorpius ate Antares! If you look, you can see his outstretched claws. Antares is just behind his head. Keep following down, and you’ll make out the scorpion’s stinging tail.

You see, the giant scorpion had never devoured anything as hot or as big as the fiery Antares and she got stuck in his throat. Antares tried to save herself by stoking up her inner fires to burn her way out. The pain she caused Scorpius was beyond anything he had ever suffered. That is why he twists and turns his way across the heavens each night. He’s trying to dislodge Antares, but he can’t — because scorpions can’t cough! Antares is forever burning his throat.

“And Mars? Well, he is still wandering all over the night sky searching for his lost lover. That’s why his orbit seems so irregular. We can see Antares caught up inside Scorpius by Mars can’t and he doesn’t know that she has been eaten.

************

Despite her education and understanding of how the universe worked, Fran could only name two or three constellations that resembled the figures they were named for. Scorpius was one of them. Its constituent stars really did look like a scorpion. She concentrated on the red giant beating in its throat.

“Come on Fran, tell me what you know about Antares,” Saxon said. “Surprise ‘Ol Gal!”

“For a start, there’s nothing I know that you probably don’t already know yourself!” Fran replied. “People have been pondering Antares for millennia, and she is still mysterious. Even the meaning of her name is uncertain. Some say it’s Greek and means ‘similar to or rivalling Mars or Ares’. Others that she’s named for the ancient Arab poet warrior Antarah ibn Shaddad.  Civilizations and tribes the world over have legends about this red beauty. And she’s huge! A red supergiant with a radius nearly nine hundred times our Sun. She’ll almost certainly go supernova in the next few thousand years, and when that happens, if it hasn’t already, it will take six hundred years before anyone on earth notices! She’s not alone either. She has a companion star called Antares B discovered in the early 1800s during an occultation by our moon.”

************

“I’ve heard some yarns in my time old man, but you’ve outdone yourself this time!” Both the story teller and his young listener were startled. They had been so involved in their myth-making that they hadn’t heard Nan walking up behind them. “Nan, Nan I feel so sad for Mars and Antares,” the little girl said. “Scorpius is horrid. I hate him for what he did. It’s so sad!”

“Yes, sweetheart, but it’s just a story!” She passed her husband and grand-daughter a cup of cocoa each. “Ask your Grandfather for some true stories about your stars.”

“Please, Grandfather, please!”

As they sipped their night-cap, he told her a little of what he’d learned from his years of stargazing: that the universe was huge, that our Solar System was but a speck in our galaxy, the Milky Way; that our galaxy was one of billions upon billions of other galaxies in the universe, each one of them made up of billions of stars, planets, asteroids, comets and other things we still don’t even know about. He explained that the planet Mars was much smaller than Earth and that Antares was a star like our Sun.

“No, the Sun is the Sun. It isn’t a real star, is it?

“Of course it is! If you could stand on Jupiter, it would look just like another star.”

But what amazed her most was Antares! How big this star really was!

“So if Antares was where the sun is we wouldn’t be here, right, and Mars wouldn’t be here either?”

“That’s right little one. In the overall scheme of things, the sun is quite small. The moon, of course, is much, much smaller again. Because of its position in the sky and its distance from Earth, it appears to be the same size as the sun though. That’s why we have solar eclipses. When the moon comes directly in line with the Earth and Sun it blocks the Sun’s light and turns day into night. Ancient folk were very superstitious about eclipses. They were frightened of what they didn’t understand.”

The child put her empty cup on the log and climbed from her grandfather’s lap to snuggle up to her Nan. She wanted more stories about Antares but was losing the battle to keep her eyes open.

************

“Well, you certainly surprised Old Gal!”

Fran smiled. She was very aware of how much more there was to know about Antares, or any other astral body, from the smallest asteroid to the largest gas cloud.

“Would you like to tell me what you know about Mars then?” Fran teased.

“Oh no, dear girl, I respect you too much to burden you with an old stargazer’s ramblings!”

Fran took the hint. The game was over, and it was time to settle back into the work they were paid to do.

“I’m impressed with your understanding of Antares and the way you imparted what you know though,” Saxon said. “If you can’t explain something simply then you don’t understand your subject. You’ll go far as an astronomer, but you also have a gift as a teacher or even as a professor. Give it some thought, Fran.”

As always, Saxon Flynn was being supportive and generous towards his charges. He had worked with many young scientists but in Fran he could sense something special. Fran respected, trusted and appreciated his wisdom and counsel.

************

A nudge in the ribs from his wife was enough to indicate it was bedtime for their granddaughter. He stood up slowly, lifted the child without disturbing her and carried her to bed. Nan collected the cups and followed.

“She hangs on your every utterance you know Saxon,” she said. “She’s very bright, no doubt about that, and keen to learn. All this star and space stuff is still rather beyond her, but she tries!”

“The pleasing thing is she’s willing to listen and learn. She knows the stories aren’t real, but she learns from the facts she picks out of the yarns.”

“Why don’t you take her to the observatory one night then? She’d enjoy that. Fran could spend a little time with her and explain the sky in simple school-girl terms.”

“I might do that, Nan. I just might do that.”

************

That night, as the little girl slept, she dreamed her little girl dreams. In the bliss of sleep she found herself in a magnificent ball-room. The chandeliers were made of stars. The music was played by the constellations. As she stood there, dressed in a flowing gown of fire-glow red, her thoughts were interrupted by a discreet little cough. Turning, she saw a most handsome warrior, a heroic figure in a rust red uniform.

“Permit me to introduce myself. I am the chief guardian of the Solar System. My name is Mars. Would you grace me with the pleasure of this dance?”

“How kind of you to ask.” Her heart fluttered as she looked into his eyes “Most certainly dear sir, my name is Antares.”

 

©Michael Andersen 2018:  Another Andoriginal

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Featured photo: Detail from David Malin’s 1979 image Antares and the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud.  © Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Renowned astro-photographer David Malin has generously given Big Skies Collaboration permission to use his archived images. He created this one way back in 1979, well before the days of digital cameras, from three black and white glass negatives.  He describes it thus: “Dominating the lower half of this cosmic landscape is the over-exposed image of the red supergiant star Antares, a star that it is steadily shedding material from its distended surface as it nears the end of its life. These tiny, smoke-like solid particles reflect Antares’ light and hide it in a nebula of its own making. Antares and its nebula are about 600 light years away. Partly surrounding Sigma Scorpii (735 light years distant) at the right of the picture is a red emission nebula, completing the most comprehensive collection of nebular types ever seen in one photograph. There’s also two globular clusters, one of the nearest to the sun, M4 (NGC 6121, 4500 light years away) at lower centre right and NGC 6144, 28,000 light years away and much fainter, buried behind Antares’ haze.”

Page created 26 August 2018

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