On the morning of March 15, 2020, watch for the waning gibbous moon to pair up with Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. You’ll be looking southward from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, and high overhead or high in the northern sky from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere.
Antares is a huge red supergiant star, with 15 to 18 times the mass of our sun. It’s a truly enormous star, with a radius in excess of three astronomical units (AU; one AU is Earth’s average distance from the sun). If, by some bit of magic, Antares were suddenly substituted for our sun, its surface would extend well past the orbit of Mars! Unlike red dwarf stars (discussed below), the lifespan of supergiant stars is short (by stellar standards). Antares is only about 12 million years old, and well into the autumn of its years. That’s in contrast to our sun, which is 4 1/2 billion years old, and middle-aged.
Notice the ruddy color of Antares. It indicates a low surface temperature of about 3,500 kelvins (5,800 degrees F or 3,200 C). That’s in contrast to a surface temperature of about 6,000 kelvins (10,000 F or 5,700 C) for our yellow-colored sun. Or contrast Antares to a very hot star, like blue-white Spica in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. Spica boasts a surface temperature of around 22,400 kelvins (39,900 F or 22,100 C).
Most red-colored stars are invisible to the unaided eye because they’re small and faint red dwarf stars. Cool red dwarf stars are only a fraction the size and luminosity of our sun, but are thought to make up about 70% of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy. These red dwarfs are extremely long-living stars with an expected life span of about a trillion years (1,000,000 million years).
Red-colored stars that are visible to the naked eye are fairly rare. In fact, all the bright red stars that we see in the night sky with the unaided eye are either red giants (such as the star Aldebaran) or red supergiants (such as the stars Antares and Betelgeuse).
Red supergiant stars are remarkably rare, accounting for one of every million or so stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Approximately 10 red supergiant stars are visible to the naked eye in a dark sky. The great size of these red supergiants makes these stars quite luminous, despite being rather distant. For example, Antares is thought to reside some 600 light-years away, but this star shines at 1st-magnitude brightness all the same.
By the way, there’s another red-colored gem lighting up the predawn/dawn sky but it’s not a star. It’s the red planet Mars, which shines at about the same magnitude as Antares. Actually, the lit side of the moon points to three planets grouped together in the southeast morning sky: Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter, the brightest of the bunch, beams in between Mars and Saturn, with Mars being on the moon side of Jupiter. The moon will move past these planets in the days ahead.
Bottom line: Let the moon show you Antares, the red supergiant star, on the morning of March 15, 2020. If your sky is fairly dark, see if you can make out the graceful shape of Antares’ constellation – Scorpius the Scorpion – in the moon’s glare.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.