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?
“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.
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.