The luminous red star in Orion’s shoulder, Betelgeuse, has been dimming. Betelgeuse has long been one of the brightest stars in the sky, and it is likely over 8.5 million years old.
The sudden dimming of the star has led some scientists to suggest that the star could be entering a pre-supernova phase before exploding spectacularly and collapsing in on itself. Is this likely?
Betelgeuse Begins Dimming
Betelgeuse is a very recognizable star thanks to its brightness and extremely unique coloration, appearing as a reddish-orange point of light in the night sky. However, its sudden dimming comes as something of a surprise. While the supergiant red star is known to be variable, often appearing at different luminosities, its current dimming is much greater than scientists have ever observed from the star.
There isn’t a consensus on what happens to a star leading up to its death and the formation of a supernova. Some scientists believe that a star only visibly changes in the moments leading up to its supernova, while others believe the data support the theory that stars dim noticeably in the years before their death. If the latter is true, then Betelgeuse could be close to the end of its lifespan
Supernova Lights Up Night Sky
If Betelgeuse were to explode, it would be one of the brightest objects in the sky for months. The moon would be outshone by the intense luminosity of the star in the Orion constellation detonating. When a massive star goes into its final stages, the core undergoes gravitational collapse and releases all of its stored up gravitational potential energy as a supermassive explosion of nearly unmatched luminosity.
Such a supernova, if viewed from earth, would be unprecedented. It would be the first modern supernova viewing, as well as the closest supernova to ever be observed from earth. However, since Betelgeuse is 642 lightyears from Earth, any observation of its supernova would be of an event that occurred 642 years ago.
That is to say, if we see the supergiant red star turn into so much stardust, the event transpired way back in the 1300s. While it’s unclear if the star will go supernova soon, the possibility is enough to excite professional scientists and amateur astronomers alike.