If you are a fan of hiking and stargazing, you might have noticed that one of the brightest stars in the night sky, Betelgeuse, has been acting strangely lately. Betelgeuse is the red supergiant star that marks the shoulder of Orion, the hunter. It is one of the most recognizable stars in the sky, and also one of the closest to Earth, at about 700 light-years away.
Betelgeuse is known to vary in brightness over time, but in 2019, it underwent a dramatic dimming that lasted for several months. Astronomers were puzzled by this unprecedented event, and some speculated that it could be a sign that Betelgeuse was about to explode as a supernova.
A supernova is a powerful explosion that occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel and collapses under its own gravity. The core of the star collapses into a neutron star or a black hole, while the outer layers are blown away in a shockwave that can outshine an entire galaxy. Supernovae are rare events in our galaxy, with only a handful observed in recorded history.
Betelgeuse is a prime candidate for a supernova, because it is already near the end of its life. It has exhausted most of its hydrogen fuel and is now fusing heavier elements in its core. It has also expanded to a colossal size, about 700 times larger than the Sun. If Betelgeuse were placed at the center of our solar system, it would engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.
But when will Betelgeuse explode? That is the million-dollar question. Some astronomers estimate that it could happen anytime within the next 100,000 years, which is a blink of an eye in cosmic terms. Others suggest that it could happen much sooner, within tens of years. A recent study based on the pulsation periods of Betelgeuse concluded that it is closer to exploding than previously thought.
The study also suggested that Betelgeuse’s dimming in 2019 was caused by a massive eruption of its surface material, which formed a cloud of dust that temporarily obscured the star from our view. This was confirmed by observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other telescopes. The eruption was something never before seen in a normal star’s behavior, and it indicates that Betelgeuse is undergoing some dramatic changes in its interior.
So what would happen if Betelgeuse explodes? Well, first of all, we would not see it right away. Since Betelgeuse is 700 light-years away, it means that the light from the explosion would take 700 years to reach us. So if Betelgeuse explodes today, we would not know until the year 2723. But when we do see it, it would be quite a spectacle.
Betelgeuse would become as bright as a full moon in the night sky, and possibly visible during the day. It would remain bright for several weeks or months, before fading away. The supernova would also produce a lot of radiation, such as gamma rays and neutrinos, but they would not pose any threat to life on Earth due to the distance. However, they would provide valuable information for astronomers to study the physics of stellar explosions.
The supernova would also leave behind a remnant, either a neutron star or a black hole, depending on the mass of Betelgeuse’s core. The remnant would be invisible to the naked eye, but detectable by radio telescopes. The supernova would also create new elements from the fusion of lighter ones, and enrich the interstellar medium with heavy metals. These elements could eventually form new stars and planets in the future.
Betelgeuse’s explosion would also have a cultural impact on Earth. It would mark the end of an iconic star that has been part of human history for thousands of years. Many ancient civilizations associated Betelgeuse with myths and legends related to Orion and his hunting companions. Betelgeuse’s name comes from Arabic, meaning “the hand of Orion”. The supernova would also change the appearance of Orion’s constellation, making it look incomplete.
But don’t worry, Betelgeuse’s explosion would not affect our Sun or our planet in any significant way. We are too far away to feel any direct consequences. And even if Betelgeuse explodes soon, we still have plenty of time to enjoy its beauty and wonder. So next time you go hiking at night, look up at the sky and appreciate Betelgeuse while you can. You never know when it might surprise you with a final farewell.
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