Wow, Betelgeuse Might Be 25% Closer than Previously Believed

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.

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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.

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Some Astronomers Think Betelgeuse Dimmed Because it “Sneezed”. And it Might be Getting Ready to do it Again

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.

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Betelgeuse Probably Dimmed Because of Enormous Starspots

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?

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Betelgeuse Is Still Dimming! And We Have the Pictures to Prove It

Betelgeuse before and after dimming

Near the end of 2019, astronomers watching the red giant Betelgeuse noted how much the star had dimmed, continuing to steadily fade for months. 

It’s a variable star, and it’s known to get dimmer and brighter, but the big surprise is that it’s still continuing to dim, recently passing magnitude 1.56 and still getting dimmer. This is unprecedented in the decades that astronomers have been watching the star.

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A Mysterious Burst of Gravitational Waves Came From a Region Near Betelgeuse. But There’s Probably No Connection

Gravitational waves are caused by calamitous events in the Universe. Neutron stars that finally merge after circling each other for a long time can create them, and so can two black holes that collide with each other. But sometimes there’s a burst of gravitational waves that doesn’t have a clear cause.

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Amazing New Views of Betelgeuse Courtesy of ALMA

This orange blob is the nearby star Betelgeuse, as imaged recently by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ALMA/ESO/NRAO

Just. Wow.

An angry monster lurks in the shoulder of the Hunter. We’re talking about the red giant star Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis in the constellation Orion. Recently, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) gave us an amazing view of Betelgeuse, one of the very few stars that is large enough to be resolved as anything more than a point of light.

Located 650 light years distant, Betelgeuse is destined to live fast, and die young. The star is only eight million years old – young as stars go. Consider, for instance, our own Sun, which has been shining as a Main Sequence star for more than 500 times longer at 4.6 billion years – and already, the star is destined to go supernova at anytime in the next few thousand years or so, again, in a cosmic blink of an eye.

Still lumpy… Betelgeuse imaged by Hubble in 1996. Hubble/ESA/STScI

An estimated 12 times as massive as Sol, Betelgeuse is perhaps a staggering 6 AU or half a billion miles in diameter; plop it down in the center of our solar system, and the star might extend out past the orbit of Jupiter.

As with many astronomical images, the wow factor comes from knowing just what you’re seeing. The orange blob in the image is the hot roiling chromosphere of Betelgeuse, as viewed via ALMA at sub-millimeter wavelengths. Though massive, the star only appears 50 milliarcseconds across as seen from the Earth. To give you some idea just how small a milliarcsecond is, there’s a thousand of them in an arc second, and 60 arc seconds in an arc minute. The average Full Moon is 30 arc minutes across, or 1.8 million milliarcseconds in apparent diameter. Betelgeuse has one of the largest apparent diameters of any star in our night sky, exceeded only by R Doradus at 57 milliarcseconds.

The apparent diameter of Betelgeuse was first measured by Albert Michelson using the Mount Wilson 100-inch in 1920, who obtained an initial value of 240 million miles in diameter, about half the present accepted value, not a bad first attempt.

You can see hints of an asymmetrical bubble roiling across the surface of Betelgeuse in the ALMA image. Betelgeuse rotates once every 8.4 years. What’s going on under that uneasy surface? Infrared surveys show that the star is enveloped in an enormous bow-shock, a powder-keg of a star that will one day provide the Earth with an amazing light show.

The bowshock created by Betelgeuse as it plows through the local interstellar medium. JAXA/Akari

Thankfully, Betelgeuse is well out of the supernova “kill zone” of 25 to 100 light years (depending on the study). Along with Spica at 250 light years distant in the constellation Virgo, both are prime nearby supernovae candidates that will on day give astronomers a chance to study the anatomy of a supernova explosion up close. Riding high to the south in the northern hemisphere nighttime sky in the wintertime, +0.5 magnitude Betelgeuse would most likely flare up to negative magnitudes and would easily be visible in the daytime if it popped off in the Spring or Fall. This time of year in June would be the worst, as Alpha Orionis only lies 15 degrees from the Sun!

An early springtime supernova in the future? Stellarium

Of course, this cosmic spectacle could kick off tomorrow… or thousands of years from now. Maybe, the light of Betelgeuse gone supernova is already on its way now, traversing the 650 light years of open space. Ironically, the last naked eye supernova in our galaxy – Kepler’s Star in the constellation Ophiuchus in 1604 – kicked off just before Galileo first turned his crude telescope towards the heavens in 1610.

You could say we’re due.