Betelgeuse and 2012? Check With the Experts

Article written: 21 Jan , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

We’ve heard there’s some news running amok that the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion could explode in 2012. The simple answer is: probably not, and even if it does, there won’t be “two suns” and we won’t be in any danger. Let me just refer you to the experts: Astronomer Phil Plait explains all on his Bad Astronomy site on Discover; additionally astronomer and 2012 doomsday debunker extraordinaire Ian O’Neill can clarify everything for you at his post on Discovery Space.

20 Responses

  1. Bariman43 says

    You can tell they’re getting desperate because I haven’t even heard of this one until now.

  2. PhelanKA7 says

    “The simple answer is: probably not”

    Let’s not sink to “their” level. The odds of it exploding in 2012 are just as good as the odds are of it exploding tomorrow. Or thousands of years from now.

    I do agree however that we are not in any danger. Let people have their imaginations. This world would be a pretty sad and boring place if we didn’t have people with crazy ideas 🙂

  3. Excalibur says

    Concidering that the expected brightness of a type II supernova at the distance of Betelgeuse is in the ballpark -10 to -12, slightly dimmer than the full Moon, it will be very bright. Unless it ends up subluminous ofc. I would actually like this to happen, it would be a very nice sight, but as said, chances are slim it happens in 2012.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

      Visible light is not the problem, it is the energy across the spectrum. The danger is the short burst ofX-rays and gamma rays. For every half distance of the supernova, the energies go up by a factor of four.
      1000 parsec is not to worry about, 100 is dangerous, 10 parsec is catastrophic.
      Betelgeuse at 200 parsecs is a little too close for comfort, but I’m more worried about Gamma Velorum, which is at 260 oarsecs. Betelgeuse is about 18 Solar Masses. Wolf-Rayet, Gamma Velorum is about twice this mass!

  4. Silver Thread says

    It’s too easy to ridicule doomsayers, their plight is a losing bid. If they’re wrong, we’re all here to tell them they’re idiots and if they’re right, no one is here to hear them crowing about it. Either way several friends and I are planning a pretty big party for the 22nd of December 2012.

  5. If it does explode in 2012, we’ll have to wait about 600 years before we know it.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

      Technically correct, but I have learned that astronomers count events in our local frame for convenience. So if “Betelgeuse explodes 2012”, it went nova (or whatever, I’m not even going to bother checking that up) ~ 1400 CE as tallied in its local frame.

      • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

        Nice point, but there is one thing you have forgotten. It may already have exploded, and we will see the effect within the next 600 years!

  6. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Frankly, I think you guys are all underestimating the sheer power of a supernova. Three candidates that are close are Betelgeuse and Gamma Velorum, or less likely Eta Carinae, the first two being the two prime candidates for relatively nasty nearby events. If they go to -12 magnitude, you will be unable to observe it as instead of an object the size of the moon, the -12 is squeezed into an disk several arcsec across. Naked-eye observation would cause damage, while telescopic viewing will probably blind you. A -10 magnitude SN would most likely be safe, however, how safe would one by if it achieved -14.5?

    The real problem is doing photometry on objects this bright, and you would have to use a modified bolometer with an aperture of several microns. (Few of the kind equipment is currently available, so we might never know how bright the SN becomes in the first few days.)

    Eta Carinae has the current estimated absolute magnitude is to be between -4 and -5. However, if we do add the whole range of the electromagnetic spectrum, in which Eta Carinae is the brightest in the infra-red and still shine at the same magnitude as it first did in 1840! Astronomers like F. Zwicky in 1953, and several others, believed instead that it is pre-supernovae. a powder-keg just about to blow. If it does go as a supernova, early estimates stated it would reach the maximum ‘sunglasses’ brightness of about -7.5. At current estimated distance, the maximum visual magnitude will be more like ?9.5! Geoffrey Burbridge in 1962 stated in the (AJ., 136, 304) that Eta Car was; “…the next nearby candidate for stellar detonation.” Estimated distance is about 1.1 kpc. (or 3 600 ly.)

    This maybe true, but the detonation of either Gamma Velorum or Betelgeuse according to some, may easily rival Eta Carinae, merely because Gamma Velorum and Betelgeuse are closer by a factor of about ten times. Estimates place the maximum brightness of these two star detonating as Supernovae Type II’s as reaching -12 and -11 magnitude, respectively.

    Both Theodor Schmidt-Kaler (QJRAS, 104, 234-235 (1981)), and Richter, O.G. and Rosa, M. (QJRAS, 104, 90-92 (1981)) have pointed out that any supernovae this brightness or brighter will likely to be most dangerous to life on the Earth by the gamma ray and X-ray emissions. At 100 parsecs any Supernova type II would shine at an incredibly bright -14.5 visual magnitude!</B? They also conclude that there will be no need to search for such bright events, but they also ominously state;

    “The first intimation of the event will be when all those listening to the radio or watching television will recognise a sharp intense ‘crack’ which announces via the SN electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of the collapse of the star. Soon afterwards an intense X-ray flux of 300000 (3×10^5) photons per square centimetre…. in the range of the 2-10 keV will arrive outside the Earth’s atmosphere. In passing we may note without atmospheric absorption such a flux would be harmful for life on the Earth.”

    Others also say the gamma ray flux will be amazing and could cause problems for life on Earth, especially mutations and irradiation.

    Frankly these 2012 doomsayers are just clutching at straws, as no one can predict when they will blow. All we can say is that some sometime in the future they will blow up. If I’m alive, I hope it happens when I am near the nadir, because half the world will be safe and the other half will be mostly irradiated, and will see the Earth’s atmosphere ablaze from the incoming X-rays and gamma rays. At least surviving the onslaught will be 2:1 odds! (I’d pity the iSS astronauts, as they will have little protection. Worst of all, there will be little warning.

    If this happened in December 2012, it will likely occur during the nighttime, as Orion culminates around 10pm, and their maybe a short period from pre-supernova phenomena, like early neutrinos and some odd variable behaviour by Betelgeuse. In the daytime there would be little warning before the irradiation event.

    The only thing we can say that this occurring in December 2012 is unlikely compared to the ages these stars have been around. It would be like saying you will be struck by lightening on a certain day in the future, when obviously the changes are already slim let alone predicting when it would happen. It might hurt us humans, but the Earth will still be here and life in some form will go on.

    Both Phil Plait and Ian O’Neil need to examine the evidence first before you categorically say; “we won’t be in any danger.” Astrophysics does point to the contrary view by these chaps!

    Note: There are several peer-review references for nearby supernovae and the expected degree of catastrophism. Most of the candidates are too far away to worry about, but if a supernova blow 10 parsecs away, life as we know it would be soon extinguished. At 1000 parsecs it would be spectacular but life would be partially disrupted. The cut off is about 200 to 250pc., and any closer you might have more things to worry about. I.e Electronics being fried by EMF or some kinds of cancers. Betelgeuse and Gamma Velorum are the only two stars just near this danger point. If we knew more about supernovae, we could refine our predicts. Not having experience such an event in our electronic age, means there are likely possibilities we have not considered. The thing that has always intrigued me is that a past SN event aeons ago may have been the spark for life and the driving force behind evolution. I.e. The likelihood of a SN 100 parsecs in the last three billion years is almost a certainty.

    Cheers…. and sleep well tonight!

    ….and now the “pre-radiation” from the sceptics here begin!!

  7. RUF says

    I hope it does go supernova. It would be quite a sight.

  8. RUF says

    We need to know it we are “down the gun barrel” of the two magnetic poles, right? Then we will know it the jets will be a problem for us here.

  9. Has anyone factored in how much protection we will get from the Sun’s magnetic field? Last time I read, it was at its weakest since accurate measurements.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

      The sun’s magnetic field would do nothing to protect us from UV, X-ray and gamma rays. It is the radiation and not the charged particles that we should worry about.
      Charged particles from some supernova event would lag well behind the short radiation onslaught&#169, as they don’t travel at the speed of light. The magnetosphere of the Sun and bow shock when the particles arrive will likely light up like a christmas tree along its boundaries, and the magnetosheath would rapidly shrink in size. too.
      Whether the solar magnetic field was at full strength or at its weakest would make little difference to a really nearby supernova. I.e. Within a couple of tems of parsecs.
      The collision of the expanding shell of a supernova might be a different matter all together, though. I.e. Imagine the sun passing through the expanding shell of the famous Crab nebula. (…but fortunately it is too far away to be of any consequence at 2.0 kpc or roughly some 6000 light-years !)

  10. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Readers here might like to look at the following interesting pdf publication in 2008 entitled “Superluminous Supernovae: No Threat from ? Carinae” by Brian C. Thomas

    They conclude;

    “We have two important conclusions: (1) According to our estimates, Eta Carinae is not likely to have any serious impacts on the terrestrial biosphere, even if it emerges as a superluminous supernova, an analog of SN 2006gy. (2) For ordinary supernovae, the endocrine disruptive effects of blue light may be a dangerous effect for some terrestrial animals over a large part of the globe with an average frequency of 20 million years”

    They also state the X-ray emission for a life extinction event, like those proposed by the 2012 mob, the supernova would need to be 0.3 parsecs or one light year away. Such an event the distance would produce 1 MJ m^-2. This would destroy the ozone layer in one fell swoop, leaving the secondary effect of UV-exposure to the Sun and doing nasty things to life on Earth.

    Several references in this paper are useful. You can read at the ADS Gehrels, N. et al., “Ozone Depletion from Nearby Supernovae”, AJ. 585, 1169-1176 (2003). [There are at least dozen paper on ozone depletion by astronomical events..] This concludes, amid much uncertainty;

    “Our primary finding is that a core-collapse SN would need to be situated approximately 8 pc away to produce a combined ozone depletion from both gamma rays and cosmic rays of [about] 47%, which would roughly double the globally averaged, biologically active UV reaching the ground. The rate of core-collapse SNe occurring within 8 pc is ~1.5 Gyr^-1.”

    This supports my earlier feeling that;
    ” The thing that has always intrigued me is that a past SN event aeons ago may have been the spark for life and the driving force behind evolution. I.e. The likelihood of a SN 100 parsecs in the last three billion years is almost a certainty.”

    Similarly there are several papers on galactic gamma sources and their consequences. One would be of the formation of nitrates, which are formed in the upper atmosphere, and would be “rained out” by the production of nitric acid. Whilst this would take several years to happen (past 2012, sadly), it may explain the late Ordovician mass extinction that may have been initiated by a gamma-ray burst. (Dilute nitric acid in the fresh water and climate changes involving a glaciation cold spell by changes in the biosphere.)

    As I said before, “Both Phil Plait and Ian O’Neil need to examine the evidence first before you categorically say; “we won’t be in any danger.” Astrophysics does point to the contrary view by these chaps!”

    Note: I would like to see the evidence for this rather than the histrionics against the 2012 doomsayers. Making broad statements without the scientific understanding or information available to support the claims only makes science look like the fools instead of the ‘cult of opportunity’ individuals who are just looking for a weakness to topple the science and instead support their ludicrous notions.”Check With the Experts”, as the title eludes too, just entices others to doubt. (The links given do nothing to support their somewhat airy-fairy statements. They are in fact on the face of it mostly unsubstantiated.)

  11. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Oh. There is another interesting paper on the nature of radioisotopes as signatures of Nearby Supernovae by American Vasiliki, Jhon ellis and Peter McCullough (2003).
    There is a pdf on line at
    I really love the title of the conclusion page; Nachbarsternsupernovaexplosionsgefahr or When Stars Attack!

    It is readable to both the novice and the advanced reader.

    • DrFlimmer says


      That’s why I like my native tongue: You can construct nouns as long as you like and they still make some sort of sense! 🙂

      In English the above word would be something like:
      “Danger from a supernova explosion of a neighbor star”
      (or something like that…)

  12. Member
    Aqua says

    I took a look at Betelgeuse just last night… it still looks like good old Betelgeuse. Will it explode soon? I guess you’d need to define ‘soon’ meaning, in our time? geologic time? galactic time? deep time? Then yes, its sure to go BANG one day… but didn’t last night.

  13. Dark Gnat says

    Even if it did explode in 2012, we wouldn’t know it until about 2510 A.D./C.E.

    Unless of course it has already exploded in 1514, and the light will just reach us in 2012.

    I’m sure the Doomsayers aren’t smart enough to figure that out though.

  14. Dark Gnat says

    I should mention that I’m going off of Celestia’s distance estimate. 🙂

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