For anyone not all that familiar with astronomy, Betelgeuse, Alpha Orion, is one of those stars one has a hard time forgetting because of its name, commonly pronounced “beetle juice.”. Now, besides its interesting name, the bright red star, the biggest within 1,000 light years, is creating a lot of buzz. Why? Some news agencies are reporting that it could explode at any minute, creating a second ‘sun’ and potentially destroying all life on Earth, too.
So, what’s truth and what’s conjecture? Facts first.
So far as stars go, Betelgeuse, a red giant star, is near the end of its life cycle. Besides its evolutionary phase, the second proof that Betelgeuse is dying is that it is a variable star, or one that pulses, expanding and contracting as it goes. With this pulsing character, Betelgeuse is obviously in a battle between the nuclear fusion going on in the star that wants to make it expand (and shine) and the gravity caused by the star’s own mass that makes it want to contract (and eventually collapse onto itself). When Betelgeuse finally does go supernova, it will explode an a blast of light that may, at least for a short time, make it as bright as the Full Moon.
Now the fiction.
When it comes to fixing a date for Betelgeuse to explode, there is simply no way to do this with any accuracy. Stars evolve over very long, almost unimaginably long, periods of time that can stretch into the billions of years. Obviously, if experienced scientists still have trouble predicting the weather a week in advance, why would one assume that astronomers can fix a precise death date to a star that is millions or even billions of years old? Answer: wishful thinking.
As everyone knows, 2012 is right around the corner and the entertainment industry is making a killing with end of the world predictions thanks to the ancient Maya calendar running out on December 21 of that year. With a gullible public, writers know that they can make an easy buck by offering doomsday scenarios to a public that seems to have a death wish. So, there is no way to accurately forecast a star’s going supernova. Next, if Betelgeuse were to explode, it’s way too far away (around 640 light years) to hurt us here on Earth.
End result: while there is truth in the assertion that Betelgeuse will be spectacular when it goes supernova, there is no way to predict the ‘when’ and, whenever it blows up, the explosion will be of no hazard to us Earthlings.
Now, for anyone interested in seeing Betelgeuse, it’s up right now. To find Betelgeuse, first look South to find the unmistakable constellation of Orion (pictured above). Now, looking at the constellation, Betelgeuse will be impossible to miss as it is the sole spot of red in the otherwise blue Constellation. Cleveland residents, the sky is looking to be clear early tomorrow morning, when Orion will be low in the Southwest. Clothes? Bundle up, tonight may be the coldest night in about a year, too!
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