Long considered one of the brightest stars in the night sky, Betelgeuse has begun to dramatically fade then brighten again for reasons we can’t quite pin down. And it’s caused some people to wonder if it’s about to explode.
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Despite being roughly 643 light years away, Betelguese is nearly impossible to miss. For starters, it’s MASSIVE; so big that if it were at the center of our Solar System, it would engulf all the planets up to Jupiter. Its diameter is roughly 1,000 times that of our Sun! To find it, just look at the Orion constellation. If Orion is “The Hunter” with his iconic three-star belt, then Betelguese is the hunter’s left shoulder. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere during the first few days of January, you can see Betelguese rising in the east just after sunset. All other times, this star is easy to spot no matter where you’re located in the world! Especially September through March.
Some of the earliest known records of Betelguese come from China in the 1st century BCE. These records describe Betelgeuse as being yellow… which is strange, because just a few years later, in 150 CE, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy described Betelguese as red. This indicates that Betelguse rapidly underwent a stellar phase change sometime between the time these two records were made, evolving to become the red giant that it is today.
Betelguese’s propensity for fading and brightening over a multi-year cycle also seems to have caught people’s attention. In western Aboriginal Australian oral tradition, Betelguese represents the ‘fire magic’ used by a love-struck hunter to reach the object of his affection. Unfortunately, the fire magic’s tendency to flicker out ultimately causes him to fail. While Sir John Herschel continues to be recognized as the first to notice Betelguese’s variable brightness, it’s clear that people living before the 19th century also recognized what was going on.
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Betelgeuse went dark, but didn’t go supernova. What happened?
“What they do know is that Betelgeuse is running out of time. It’s less than 10 million years old, a youngster compared with the roughly 4.6-billion–year-old sun. But because Betelgeuse is so massive and burns through its fuel so quickly, it’s already in the final life stage of a red supergiant.”
Aboriginal Australians Observed Red Giant Stars’ Variability
“Hamacher found two oral traditions that referenced the variable stars Betelgeuse, Antares and Aldebaran. Their changes in brightness carried important weight in the narratives and helped encode certain social rules, such as signaling to the tribe when to celebrate initiation rituals.”
When Will Betelgeuse Explode?
“In this video, I talk about when Betelgeuse will explode. Spoiler: it’s not for another 100,000 years or so! I discuss the physics of the recent dimming and subsequent brightening, and what we can see when we look up with the naked eye.”
You can probably point to the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, and your astrological sign in the sky. But what would the constellations look like from another solar system? And will any of Orion’s stars ever become black holes? In Seeker Constellations, we’ll explain the science of the universe’s most famous stars and dive into the culturally significant stories behind them. Most importantly, we’ll provide a guide to where you can see these incredible constellations for yourself!
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