A rare occultation of the bright star Betelgeuse by asteroid 319 Leona turned up mixed results.
In science and astronomy, sometimes a negative or subtle result can be as interesting as a positive one. That’s just what occultation-chasers where confronted with this past Monday evening on the night of December 11th/12th, when asteroid 319 Leona occulted (passed in front of) the +0.5 magnitude star Betelgeuse.
Anyone who regularly watches the skies may well be familiar with the constellation Orion the hunter. It is one of the few constellations that actually looks like the thing it is supposed to look like rather than some abstract resemblance. One prominent star is Betelgeuse and back in 2020 it dimmed to a level lower than ever before in recorded history. A team of astronomers have been studying the event with some fascinating results.
At the beginning of 2020, the red giant star Betelgeuse started to dim significantly. Betelgeuse has been known to vary in brightness, but this one was unusual. It grew much dimmer than usual, and for a longer period. Since Betelgeuse is a star at the end of its life, it led some to speculate that perhaps it would go supernova. Astronomers didn’t think that was likely, and of course, Betelgeuse didn’t explode, and gradually its usual brightness returned. But astronomers were puzzled as to why Betelgeuse grew so dim.
I have stood under Orion The Hunter on clear evenings willing its star Betelgeuse to explode. “C’mon, blow up!” In late 2019, Betelgeuse experienced an unprecedented dimming event dropping 1.6 magnitude to 1/3 its max brightness. Astronomers wondered – was this dimming precursor to supernova? How cosmically wonderful it would be to witness the moment Betelgeuse explodes. The star ripping apart in a blaze of light scattering the seeds of planets, moons, and possibly life throughout the Universe. Creative cataclysm.
Only about ten supernova have been seen with the naked eye in all recorded history. Now we can revisit ancient astronomical records with telescopes to discover supernova remnants like the brilliant SN 1006 (witnessed in 1006AD) whose explosion created one of the brightest objects ever seen in the sky. Unfortunately, latest research suggests we all might be waiting another 100,000 years for Betelgeuse to pop. However, studying this recent dimming event gleaned new information about Betelgeuse which may help us better understand stars in a pre-supernova state.
When stars reach the end of their lifespan, they undergo gravitational collapse at their cores. The type of explosion that results is one of the most awesome astronomical events imaginable and (on rare occasions) can even be seen with the naked eye. The last time this occurred was in 1604 when a Type Ia supernova took place over 20,000 light-years away – commonly-known as Kepler’s Supernova (aka. SN1604)
Given the massive amounts of radiation they release, past supernovae are believed to have played a role in the evolution of our planet and terrestrial life. According to new research by CU Boulder geoscientist Robert Brakenridge, these same supernovae may have left traces in our planet’s biology and geology. These findings could have implications given fears that Betelgeuse might be on the verge of going supernova.
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.
Betelgeuse, the tenth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest in the constellation Orion, has been behaving a little oddly lately. Beginning in December of 2019, researchers from Villanova University noticed the red supergiant was dimming noticeably. This trend continued into the new year, with Betelgeuse dimming throughout January and February of 2020. eventually losing two-thirds of its brilliance.
From this point onward, Betelgeuse began to brighten again and returned to its typical visual brightness by April. And now, the massive star dimming once again, and ahead of schedule. In response, an international team of researchers recently conducted a study where they theorized that this pattern might be the result of Betelgeuse “sneezing” out dense clouds of hot gas which then cooled.
A few months ago we all watched as Betelgeuse dimmed. Between October 2019 and 22nd of February 2020 the star’s brightness dropped by a factor of about three. It went from magnitude 0.5, and from being the tenth-brightest star in the sky, to magnitude 1.7.
Naturally, we all wondered what was happening. Would it go supernova? Even though that was extremely unlikely, how could we help but wonder?
Everyone’s favorite red supergiant star is bright again. The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) has been tracking Betelgeuse as it has gradually returned to its more normal brilliance. As of this writing, it is about 95% of its typical visual brightness. Supernova fans will have to wait a bit longer.
The latest observations of Betelgeuse show that the star is now beginning to slowly brighten. No supernova today! Nothing to see, better luck next time.
Despite some of the hype, this behavior is exactly what astronomers expected. Betelgeuse is a very different star from our Sun. While our Sun is a main-sequence star in its prime of life, Betelgeuse is a red giant star on the verge of death. But the death of a star is not a simple process.