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Betelgeuse Brightness Surge Stirs Supernova Speculations

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star that can be easily spotted as a bright red dot on the shoulder of the Orion constellation. Even if you had never heard the name before It is a well-known feature in the night sky. Betelgeuse has become more noticeable in recent years due to changes in its appearance. There have been unexpected changes in its brightness that are not well understood. Over the past few weeks, the star’s light has sometimes gone up by more than 50%. Both people who watch the sky for fun and people who do it for a living have noticed this. These people are eagerly anticipating a significant astronomical occurrence. In the upcoming days, Betelgeuse will end its life in a supernova. As Earth is only 650 light-years away, we will have a great view of this event.

But does Betelgeuse’s recent brightness mean it’s about to blow its top? And what would an explosion like that close by look like?

What happens to a star after it fuses helium into carbon?

Although astronomers are eager to witness it, the probability of anyone currently living to observe the anticipated explosion of Betelgeuse is extremely low. Scientists believe that Betelgeuse is in the early stages of fusing helium into carbon, based on its brightness, color, size, and estimated age. After fusing helium into carbon, it will fuse into oxygen, followed by silicon, and finally iron. At this stage, Betelgeuse will not be able to generate energy from fusion reactions anymore. As a result, the star will collapse due to its own gravity and explode.

Jared Goldberg:

An astronomer at the Flatiron Institute in New York City, Jared Goldberg, says that Betelgeuse will explode in the next 10,000 to 100,000 years, but he doesn’t know when exactly. “I’m not gonna bet my career on Betelgeuse exploding…right now.”

What would be the initial signs and effects of a supernova event?

The initial sign of a supernova would be a subtle yet clear surge of neutrinos, which are emitted when a star collapses. These neutrinos would swiftly reach Earth and activate detectors worldwide. Soon after, when energetic particles of light emerged from the compact and spreading cloud of leftover matter from the star, an impressive display of light and energy would occur. 

Jared Goldberg:

According to Goldberg, we would observe Betelgeuse becoming significantly brighter, up to 10,000 or even 100,000 times brighter than its usual brightness, within a week. The brightness of the supernova remnant depends on the strength of the explosion. It could be as bright as a quarter or half of the full moon but in a single point of light. This brightness is strong enough to be seen during the day and to create clear shadows at night.

What are the potential effects of Betelgeuse explosion on astronomers and the worldwide response?

The show would last for a sufficient amount of time for everyone to observe. Goldberg states that the brightness lasts for a considerable amount of time, although it may seem brief in comparison to a star’s lifetime and long in comparison to a news cycle. The explosion and its aftermath would be a significant event for astronomers. It would provide an exceptional opportunity for close observations that are likely to uncover many unexpected discoveries.

Is Earth safe from this explosion?

Fortunately, Betelgeuse is located at a safe distance from Earth, so the explosion would not cause any harmful effects on humans. However, the extensive record of supernova observations by humanity indicates that the occurrence would still have significant effects. Bryan Penprase, an astronomer at the Soka University of America, states that the sky’s significant and visible transformation would cause a massive response worldwide.

Bryan Penprase

According to Penprase, people who observed the stars in the past often saw supernovae as signs of bad luck. In today’s world, where misinformation and denial of science are prevalent, the potential death of Betelgeuse could lead to worrisome reactions. He says that in the current era, where people are somewhat emotionally fragile, the eruption of a star like that would undoubtedly lead to various amusing, intriguing, and potentially concerning speculations from different segments of society.

How does Betelgeuse behavior affect our understanding of physics?

Despite our disconnection from the heavens, the supernova of Betelgeuse would be impossible to overlook. Penprase states that being suddenly awakened to the sky’s existence by such a dramatic event would have a significant effect. Perhaps it could reignite a collective fascination with astronomy throughout society.

Goldberg argues that Betelgeuse’s contemporary behavior can be fascinating even without a dramatic conclusion. The object’s peculiar oscillation between fading and flaring “is still evidence of some really cool physics out there,” he says.  “The fact that stars are pulsating on human timescales is very cool.”

What is causing the rapid fluctuation in Betelgeuse brightness and how is it related to the Great Dimming event?

For a long time, astronomers have been aware of the fact that Betelgeuse brightens and fades at regular intervals. This pattern was recognized by different cultures across the world, including Aboriginal Australians and ancient Greeks, many centuries ago. Currently, the star’s brightness is fluctuating rapidly, approximately every 130 days. This is a significant change from the usual cycle of around 400 days in modern times.  Andrea Dupree who is an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center is tracking the star.

What is the Great Dimming event?

The current behavior of Betelgeuse appears to be related to the event known as the Great Dimming, which occurred in late 2019 and early 2020. Scientists believe that this was caused by the star releasing a large amount of gas and dust. Consider the possibility of removing a piece of the material. 

Andrea Dupree:

According to Dupree, all the other things will come in and move around in a swishing and sloshing manner. The turbulent plasma and magnetic fields that have formed could provide an explanation for why the star is currently much brighter than what the 400-day cycle would predict.

Dupree draws a comparison between the irregular brightening and the shaking of an unbalanced washing machine. She stated that she believes the upper layers are struggling to return to their normal state. We hope that it will eventually return to its 400-day level, but currently, it is facing difficulties.

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