Betelgeuse's mysterious behavior

There's a star in the sky that's dimming.

Normally, this wouldn't be too crazy of a thing and could be overlooked by the majority of the populace — except it's happening to one of the brightest stars in the sky.

Betelgeuse (no, it's not pronounced "beetle juice") seems to be dimming drastically ... and dramatically. It's dimmed so much in recent weeks that it's gone from the seventh brightest star in the sky to about the 21st, that according to Edward F. Guinan and others presenting a paper on the fainting of the star.

Again ... normally, this would not be such a big deal, but it is in this case. Know how recent columns have touched on the topic of supernovae — explosions of stars? Well, it just so happens Betelgeuse is probably the next star in our galaxy to go supernova. And, it's only a hop, skip and a jump away — in other words, an estimated 650 light years away. That really is a hop, skip and a jump by galactic standards.

OK, so Betelgeuse might go supernova soon. And it's dimming. So, what's the connection?

Betelgeuse is an extremely volatile red supergiant star. Can you imagine a star so big that it reaches the orbit of Jupiter? That's Betelgeuse. But Betelgeuse's atmosphere is also fluctuating, bringing its atmosphere from the size of Jupiter's orbit to that of the inner planets. Though there's no direct recording of this happening (because the last supernova in the Milky Way hasn't happened for centuries), scientists believe that before a star explodes, in undergoes wild variances in brightness and size.

This is not just something one scientist is saying, it's something you can see for yourself. Walk outside in the late evening and find Orion. It should be high in the sky, sort of angled toward the south. Betelgeuse is the red star in the upper left part of the constellation, and normally it would be about as bright as Rigel, the bright blue star in the bottom right corner. But, if you go and look, you can clearly see that right now Betelgeuse is much dimmer than Rigel.

So, will Betelgeuse explode tomorrow? No, not necessarily. It might explode tomorrow, or it might go thousands of years from now. But when it does go, we'll know. The star will be a sudden out-of-place beacon during the daytime, and at night, it will shine bright or even brighter than the full moon!

Scientists believe this may be just a small segment of Betelgeuse's unpredictable phase, but you never know!

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Malan is entertainment editor and astronomy columnist for the News & Eagle.

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