In the last year, Betelgeuse has experienced two episodes of dimming. Normally, it’s one of the ten brightest stars in the sky, and astrophysicists and astronomers got busy trying to understand what was happening with the red supergiant. Different research came up with some possible answers: Enormous starspots, a build-up of dust, pre-supernova convulsions.
Now a new study is introducing another wrinkle into our understanding of Betelgeuse. The authors say that Betelgeuse is both smaller and closer than previously thought.
In its 4.5 billion year history, Earth has had to run the gauntlet. Numerous catastrophes have imperilled the planet, from massive impacts, to volcanic conflagrations, to frigid episodes of snowball Earth. Yet life persists.
Among all of the hazards that threaten a planet, the most potentially calamitous might be a nearby star exploding as a supernova.
It’s kind of hard to see inside a star as it’s blowing up, because of the whole “blowing up” part, but gravitational waves – tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself – may help astronomers unlock how the biggest stars die.
While our planet orbits the Sun each year – a billion kilometers – our entire Solar System is drifting through the Milky Way Galaxy making one rotation every 225-250 million years (that means dinosaurs actually lived on the other side of the Galaxy!) Humanity has been on Earth for a small fraction of that journey, but parts of what we’ve missed is chronicled. It is written into the rock and life of our planet by the explosions of dying stars – supernova. Turns out supernovas write in radioactive ink called Iron-60.
As the Sun travels through the Galaxy, so too do the hundreds of billions of other stars that comprise the Milky Way; all swirling and spiraling in varying directions. If you could time travel to a distant past, you’d look up and see an unfamiliar sky – different stars, different constellations, and sometimes the glow of a brilliant supernova. Stars explode in the Milky Way about once every fifty years. Given the immense size of the Galaxy at around 150,000 light years in diameter, the odds of one of those stars exploding in our backyard is low. But while supernova happen in the Galaxy twice a century, those in close proximity to Earth, within 400 light years, do happen once every few million years. And along Earth’s epic 4.5 billion-year journey, it appears that we’ve had close encounters with supernova several times. In fact, we seem to be travelling through the fallout cloud of supernovae right now.
If you’re a Star Trek fan, you may think the above image portrays the “Nexus” from the movie Star Trek: Generations. In the film, the Nexus was a ribbon-like extra-dimensional realm that exists outside of normal space-time.
But this is actually a real image from the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, of the Cygnus Loop. This stunning picture from space shows just a small portion of a blast wave left over from a supernova that took place, from our vantage point, in the northern constellation Cygnus the Swan.
Four centuries ago, Johannes Kepler observed a bright new star in the night sky. Astronomers from all over the world noticed it, but it came to be known as Kepler’s star. It was caused by a stellar explosion 20,000 light-years from Earth, and it was the most recent naked-eye supernova to appear in our galaxy.
A supernova is a powerful event. For a brief moment in time, a star shines as bright as a galaxy, ripping itself apart in a last, desperate attempt to fight against its gravity. While we see supernovae as rare and wondrous things, they are quite common. Based on observations of isotopes in our galaxy, we know that about twenty supernovae occur in the Milky Way every thousand years. These brilliant cosmic flashes fill the universe with heavy elements, and their remnant dust makes up almost everything we see around us. But supernovae won’t keep happening forever. At some point in the far future, the universe will see the last supernova.
Astronomers recently spotted a rare type of supernova explosion that was accompanied by a massive flare of ultraviolet radiation. Untangling the mystery of the UV flash could help unravel the mysterious nature of these supernova explosions, and even help us understand the age of the universe.
The answers to many questions in astronomy are hidden behind the veil of deep time. One of those questions is around the role that supernovae played in the early Universe. It was the job of early supernovae to forge the heavier elements that were not forged in the Big Bang. How did that process play out? How did those early stellar explosions play out?
A trio of researchers turned to a supercomputer simulation to find some answers.
Supernovae are some of the most powerful events in the Universe. They’re extremely energetic, luminous explosions that can light up the sky. Astrophysicists have a pretty good idea how they work, and they’ve organized supernovae into two broad categories: they’re the end state for massive stars that explode near the end of their lives, or they’re white dwarfs that draw gas from a companion which triggers runaway fusion.