The folklore of Australia’s native cultures tells of a young man who got himself in trouble — but escaped to the stars. In the story, he was going through an initiation. As part of the ceremony, his body was painted red. His brother’s wives were attracted to him, so they seduced him. Their angry husband then burned down their hut. But the young man threw a spear into the Milky Way, then pulled himself and the women to safety in the heavens. There they remain, with the young man sometimes growing brighter — a signal to his people to calm their own desires.
A study a couple of years ago said the story represents Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, the scorpion. Antares shines bright orange, so it represents the young man. It’s flanked by two fainter white stars — the sisters-in-law. And Antares grows brighter and fainter, just as in the story.
The tale may indicate that aboriginal cultures were paying attention to variable stars long ago. While most stars change very little, a few can change a bit more. Antares’s brightness, for example, can change by 20 percent or more. But such a change plays out over months or years. So it would take decades of patient skywatching to notice it — and to pass it on to later generations.
Antares is pretty easy to spot tonight because it rises below the full Moon. The bright star will be even closer to the Moon at first light.
Tomorrow: Pondering new missions of exploration.
Script by Damond Benningfield