The giant star Betelgeuse will soon perish in a titanic explosion. Could this happen in the mythical “doomsday” year of 2012? Could dying Betelgeuse take us with it?

Image of Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse blazes brightly in this Hubble Space Telescope image. Has it only a year to live? (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

“Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” was the chant which summoned the obnoxious ghost played by Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s 1988 movie. Keaton’s character was actually named Betelgeuse, presumably after the giant star in Orion.

This huge star, which is roughly 1000 times the diameter of the Sun, is currently blazing orange in our night skies. Mere millions of years old, Betelgeuse is young compared to the Sun, but is aging badly and is nearing its end. High mass stars live shorter and more dramatic lives than low mass stars. Betelgeuse is in trouble, recent observations suggest it is contracting and losing material at an alarming rate. It is surrounded by a giant glob of gas it has expelled. Were this plume to be superimposed on our Solar System centred on the Sun, it would engulf the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt would be inside Betelgeuse itself!) The brightness of Betelgeuse is variable too, reinforcing that all is not well with the giant star.

Image of betelgeuse from eso

The cyclopean gas cloud around the dying star is clearly seen in this IR image. (Image credit: ESO)

Betelgeuse will die in an awesome supernova explosion soon. “Soon” here could mean in the next few hundred thousand years. It will leave behind an nebula, similar to the Crab Nebula, with a tiny neutron star at the centre.

Recently there has been some nonsense spread around the internet, that Web of a Million Lies, claiming that Betelgeuse will detonate next  year and appear as a second sun in our skies or even binging about the Apocalypse. This foolishness has even spread to the printed media. It appears to have stemmed from reporting of an interview of an Australian physicist.  All alarmist foolishness of course. Betelgeuse may explode in 2012, but it might explode in the year 668464 AD, based on our current understanding we just cannot be sure. The explosion will not cause life on Earth any harm, as a supernova would have to be relatively close – on the order of a couple of dozen  light years -to do that.


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February Night Sky Wonders | Astronotes · February 6, 2014 at 10:12

[…] Orion the Hunter, one of the most easily recognised constellations, continues to be prominent in the southern sky. Three medium bright stars mark his famous belt. Above the belt is the giant red star Betelgeuse which has been in the news recently as it may go supernova any time now or in the next million years! But don’t panic, rumours of this superstar’s demise have been exaggerated. […]

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