Is Betelgeuse About to Blow? Maybe… Maybe Not

The famous supergiant on Orion’s shoulder has rapidly dimmed, stoking excitement that a supernova may be in the offing.

Artist’s impression of the tortured, bubbling photosphere of a dying Betelgeuse. [ESO/L. Calçada]

Do you hear that ticking? Doesn’t it sound like a stellar timer is counting down to the inevitable demise of a massive star? While the excitement may be the amplified construct of social media predictions of the death of Betelgeuse, our stellar neighbor really is close to going supernova.

“Close”, however, is relative. It could be as “human close” as blowing up any minute now… to “galactic close” as blowing up in a hundred thousand years, maybe more.

So, what’s all the fuss about? In a nutshell, the brightest star in the famous constellation of Orion is bright no more. In the past few weeks, Betelgeuse has dimmed noticeably, stoking predictions that it could be about to spectacularly erupt at any time, becoming as bright as a full Moon and casting its own shadows at night.

While this may sound ominous, a Betelgeuse supernova poses no threat to life on Earth. It’s located a safe 600 light-years away, so if it did explode, we’d be treated to a historic cosmic firework display and not doomsday. Any energetic particles spewing from the explosion may reach the solar system in 100,000 years, but would have a minimal impact; the heliosphere (our Sun’s extended magnetic “bubble” that encompasses all the planets) would be more than powerful enough to deflect the tenuous gases.

The constellation of Orion, with the ruddy Betelgeuse in the upper left-hand corner on Orion’s “shoulder.” [Photo by Frank Cone from Pexels]

There has always been excitement over Betelgeuse and its explosive potential. It’s a massive star, with a mass 12-times that of our Sun, which has reached the end of its life. But with a lifespan of only eight million years or so, it may sound odd that it’s dying of old age. As a comparison, our Sun—an “average” yellow dwarf star—sounds geriatric in comparison; it’s approximately five billion years old. But the strange physics of stellar evolution dictates that the more massive the star, the shorter its lifespan. Betelgeuse is on borrowed time, whereas our Sun is only middle-aged. In other words, Betelgeuse has lived fast and it will die young.

As a star that’s about to die, Betelgeuse is experiencing the final throes of violent processes that signify the conclusion of stellar evolution—a phase that sees a massive star puff up into a red supergiant. In the case of Betelgeuse, while it is 12-times more massive than our Sun, it has expanded into a grotesque, bubbling mess of superheated plasma, puffed up to nearly 1,000-times wider than our Sun. If Betelgeuse were transplanted into the middle of our solar system, it would swallow all the planets out to Saturn. Yes, even Jupiter would be ingested.

A precision observation of Betelgeuse’s asymmetric photosphere, highlighting bright spots and a non-spherical shape, as captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). 

After guzzling all of its hydrogen fuel long ago, it’s now fusing heavier elements inside its tortured interior to the point where iron is being created. For any massive star, the fusion of iron is the death knell; energy is being absorbed, and soon, its immense gravity will cause the whole mess to collapse, generating an almighty shockwave that will, ultimately, rip Betelgeuse apart as a supernova.

As reported by astronomers before Christmas, the observed dimming could be interpreted as a precursor to the anticipated supernova, and for good reason. But Betelgeuse is known to regularly vary in brightness, so astronomers suspect that, while this is an unprecedented dimming event, the famous star will soon return to its “regular” brightness once more, reclaiming its rank as ninth brightest star in the sky.

In short, don’t place any serious money on Betelgeuse exploding soon. While there is a tiny chance that it might have already exploded, the light from the supernova currently galloping across the 600 light-year interstellar divide between us and Betelgeuse, it’s way more likely that it’s just Betelgeuse being Betelgeuse and keeping variable star astronomers on their toes.

That’s not to say the dimming event isn’t exciting, on the contrary. Seeing a prominent star in the night sky fade with your own eyes is something to behold, so when you get clear skies, look for Orion and ponder The Hunter’s missing shoulder.

Black Hole’s Personality Not as Magnetic as Expected

This 2015 NASA Swift observation of V404 Cygni shows the X-ray echoes bouncing off rings of dust surrounding the binary system after the X-ray nova (Andrew Beardmore/Univ. of Leicester/NASA/Swift)

In 2015, a stellar-mass black hole in a binary star system underwent an accretion event causing it to erupt brightly across the electromagnetic spectrum. Slurping down the plasma from its stellar partner — an unfortunate sun-like star — the eruption became a valuable observation for astronomers and, in a recent study, researchers have used the event to better understand the magnetic environment surrounding the black hole.

The binary system in question is V404 Cygni, located 7,795 light-years from Earth, and that 2015 outburst was an X-ray nova, an eruption that previously occurred in 1989. Detected by NASA’s Swift space observatory and the Japanese Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) on board the International Space Station, the event quickly dimmed, a sign that the black hole had consumed its stellar meal.

Combining these X-ray data with observations by radio, infrared and optical telescopes, an international team of astronomers were able to measure emissions from the plasma close to the black hole’s event horizon as it cooled.

The black hole was formed after a massive star ran out of fuel and exploded as a supernova. Much of the magnetism of the progenitor star would have been retained post-supernova, so by measuring the emissions from the highly charged plasma, astronomers have a tool to probe deep inside the black hole’s “corona.” Like the sun’s corona — which is a magnetically-dominated region where solar plasma interacts with our star’s magnetic field (producing the solar wind and solar flares, for example) — it’s predicted that there should be a powerful interplay between the accreting plasma and the black hole’s coronal magnetism.

As charged particles interact magnetic fields, they experience acceleration radially (i.e. they spin around the magnetic field lines that guide their direction of propagation) and, should the magnetism be extreme (in a solar or, indeed, black hole’s corona), this plasma can be accelerated to relativistic speeds. In this case, synchrotron radiation may be generated. By measuring the radiation across all wavelengths, astronomers can thereby probe the magnetic environment close to a black hole as this radiation is directly related to how powerful a magnetic field is generating it.

A black hole with a magnetic field threading through an accretion disk (ESO)

According to the study, published in the journal Science on Dec. 8, V404 Cygni’s hungry black hole has a much weaker magnetic field than theory would suggest. And that’s a bit of a problem.

The researchers write: “Using simultaneous infrared, optical, x-ray, and radio observations of the Galactic black hole system V404 Cygni, showing a rapid synchrotron cooling event in its 2015 outburst, we present a precise 461 ± 12 gauss magnetic field measurement in the corona. This measurement is substantially lower than previous estimates for such systems, providing constraints on physical models of accretion physics in black hole and neutron star binary systems.”

Black holes are poorly understood, but with the advent of gravitational wave (and “multimessenger”) astronomy and the excitement surrounding the Event Horizon Telescope, in the next few years we’re going to get a lot more intimate with these gravitational enigmas. Why this particular black hole’s magnetic environment is weaker than what would be expected, however, suggests that our theories surrounding black hole evolution are incomplete, so there will likely be some surprises in store.

“We need to understand black holes in general,” said collaborator Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), in a statement. “If we go back to the very earliest point in our universe, just after the Big Bang, there seems to have always been a strong correlation between black holes and galaxies. It seems that the birth and evolution of black holes and galaxies, our cosmic island, are intimately linked. Our results are surprising and one that we’re still trying to puzzle out.”