Ending the Year with Betelgeuse

A few days prior to the holiday break there was news of Betelgeuse dimming to an all-time low, potentially signaling the start of the process that will transform this star into a Supernova. What? Wait a minute… A star in our own galaxy exploding? But that hasn’t been observed since 1604!

Remnant of SN1604 (NASA)

Remnant of SN1604 – last galactic nova (NASA)

There are plenty of novas at any point in time, they just happen to be in galaxies far away (cue Star Wars intro). During those few days or weeks of otherworldly explosions these stars become the brightest object in their host galaxies.

SN2018ivc in galaxy NGC 1068 (Credit: Bostroem et al., 2019.)

SN2018ivc in galaxy NGC 1068 (Credit: Bostroem et al., 2019.)

So if we can see them when they are millions of light years away, what would an exploding star just 700 light years away, like Betelgeuse, look like?

Well if we base ourselves on SN1604 it will be visible to the naked in eye for three weeks, including during daytime. SN1604 was 20,000 light years away, while Betelgeuse is at a fraction of that, so most experts anticipates that it would be as bright as a full Moon.

Now before we go crazy anticipating when Betelgeuse, a red super-giant, will explode, let me present some information to put everything in perspective.

Betelgeuse is a red super-giant of class M1-2 in the constellation Orion, 2nd in brightness just after Rigel. Betelgeuse is one of the largest start we can see when glancing up at the night sky. If Betelgeuse was our Sun, it would engulfed all planets up to Jupiter. Stars of that size aren’t like the nice Smith Ball of fire we imagine our Sun to be. They are more like a loose ball of foam, constantly bubbling and bloating from the incredible heat created in the inner core. If you are starting to think unstable, you are partly right.

Betelgeuse is also a well documented variable star, meaning it periodically varies in brightness.

Recorded Brightness of Betelgeuse Over the Years (credit: AAVSO)

Recorded Brightness of Betelgeuse Over the Years (credit: AAVSO)

So while it is at an all-time low compared to its known ~425 day cycle, it also has a ~5.9 year cycle, and this episode just happens to be a combination of both lows. So no need to panic… for now.

Betelgeuse will one day end as a type II supernovae, probably not for another 100,000 years. Until then we can all glance up during these cold winter nights at how easily the Orion constellation can be spotted and enjoyed. The three bright stars marking the belt and the hour-glass figure is easy to find. Take a few moments to look at Betelgeuse as on a galactic scale it will be gone tomorrow.

Betelgeuse Red Super Giant in Orion (Benoit Guertin)

Betelgeuse Red Super Giant in Orion (Benoit Guertin)

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