Categories: Astronomy

What’s Happening with Betelgeuse? Astronomers Propose a Specialized Telescope to Watch the Star Every Night

Starting in late 2019, Betelgeuse began drawing a lot of attention after it mysteriously started dimming, only to brighten again a few months later. For a variable star like Betelgeuse, periodic dimming and brightening are normal, but the extent of its fluctuation led to all sorts of theories as to what might be causing it. Similar to Tabby’s Star in 2015, astronomers offered up the usual suspects (minus the alien megastructure theory!)

Whereas some thought that the dimming was a prelude to the star becoming a Type II supernova, others suggested that dust clouds, enormous sunspots, or ejected clouds of gas were the culprit. In any case, the “Great Dimming of Betelgeuse” has motivated an international team of astronomers to propose that a “Betelgeuse Scope” be created that cant monitor the star constantly.

The paper that outlines their proposal was recently presented at the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) Optical Engineering + Applications 2020, a virtual conference that took place from Aug. 24th to Sept. 4th. The paper, “Betelgeuse scope: single-mode-fibers-assisted optical interferometer design for dedicated stellar activity monitoring,” is also available online as part of the Proceedings of SPIE, Vol. 11490.

To recap, Betelgeuse is a red giant star that is about 12 times as massive as our Sun and about 900 times as large. It is located about 700 light-years from Earth in the Orion constellation and is easily spotted by looking for “the Hunter’s” left shoulder. Ordinarily, Betelgeuse is the second-brightest star in Orion (after Rigel) and the tenth-brightest star in the night sky.

Starting in November of 2019, the star began to dim rather suddenly, reaching a historical minimum of just 37% of its average brightness by Feb. 10th, 2020. At this point, Betelgeuse began to brighten until the end of May, at which point the dimming started all over again. For the sake of their article, the team explored different theories as to what caused the dimming.

This included the “Dark Spots hypothesis,” which was based on submillimeter observations taken by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and Atacama Pathfinder Experiment. Then there’s the “Dust formation and blocking hypothesis,” which is based on observations conducted with the VLT/SPHERE and the Hubble Space Telescope that suggest that there was a mass ejection from a large convective cell in the photosphere.

According to the authors, all of these possibilities can be investigated by observing the change of Betelgeuse’s angular diameter accurately. In order to do this, telescopes that are capable of conducting high-angular resolution observations (such as optical interferometry) would be needed. In this process, visible light is gathered by two or more telescopes and then combined to obtain higher-resolution images.

Graphic showing how Betelgeuse could be dimming. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Wheatley (STScI)

As they state in their study, today’s optical telescope facilities are not optimized for the kind of time-evolution monitoring that would be needed. In short, conducting this type of campaign would mean committing observation time from multiple facilities, which is a very expensive prospect. For this reason, the team recommends that a telescope be commissioned for the task.

As Dr. Narsireddy Anugu, a Prize Fellow in Astronomical Instrumentation and Technology at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory and the lead author on the study, explained to Universe Today via email:

“High-angular observations are required to image any existing dark spots on the Betelgeuse’s surface and ‘rogue’ convection cells. Collaborators [are also needed], and we have been taken some data with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at Paranal, Chile (led by M. Montarges) and the CHARA array at the Mount Wilson Observatory. We are currently working on image reconstruction of interferometry data to reveal any dark spots and convection cells on the Betelgeuse surface.”

As they describe it, this “Betelgeuse Scope” will leverage advancements made in the field of optical interferometry and the telecommunication industry. It will consist of an array of 12 x 4 inch Cassegrain-reflector optical telescopes, which will be mounted to the surface of a large radio dish, which will allow for snapshot imaging of convection cells and time-evolution monitoring. As Dr. Anugu described it:

“We have proposed a unique six telescope interferometer concept installing on a radio antenna. This concept aims at a low budget by cutting the costs of pointing and tracking of each individual telescope using the already existing pointing and tracking of the radio antenna. Another benefit of installing the telescope array on a common mount is that we don’t need longer delay lines as in the classical non-common mount based long-baseline interferometers. Where an active compensation of changing the geometrical delay is required between the wavefronts reaching any two telescopes.”

Artist’s impression of a red supergiant star, of which interferometry has allowed detailed observations to be made. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Polarization-maintaining single-mode optical fibers will then carry the coherent beams from the individual optical telescopes to a central beam-combining facility. To compensate for atmospheric turbulence, vibrations, and pointing errors caused by windy conditions, the team recommends a fast steering mirror, a standard tip-tilt correction system, a fast frame rate detector, and a metrology laser system to measure vibrations.

In addition to being able to monitor Betelgeuse and resolve the mystery of its dimming, the Betelgeuse Scope will also allow for significant advancements in the field of astronomy. Said Dr. Anugu:

“Our proposed telescope monitors the Betelgeuse every-night with high-angular resolutions, makes a movie of motion of dynamic convection activity on the surface. This way, we will probe future mysterious dimming events such as 2019-2020 and origins of the dust formation around the Betelgeuse.”

At present, Anugu and his team are building a prototype of their proposed telescope, which will be mounted on the University of Arizona’s 6-meter (~20 foot) radio dish. So far, they have procured one set of light-collecting and fiber injection optics (12 are needed overall) and are integrating them into their lab at the Steward Observatory. They anticipate that the prototype will be finished and ready to be installed by the end of the year.

“Our proposed concept is straight forward, but we are building a pathfinder to test them,” said Dr. Anugu. “Once successful, we reuse the same optics and actuators for the actual 12-m radio antenna, and 12 telescope interferometer array as this concept is scalable and modular.”

Further Reading: arXiv

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

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