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Betelgeuse is Probably Not About to Explode, Astronomers Assure

Don’t worry, everyone, it’s cool. The giant star Betelgeuse is not about to explode. Probably.

It’s pretty disconcerting to hear an answer like that to a question you had no idea you should have been asking. Why would you need to clarify that, scientists? Makes a man start to wonder if perhaps Betelgeuse is about to explode, and it’s cruel to play with a man’s paranoia like that.

The thing about Betelgeuse, the giant red star in the constellation Orion, is that one day it will explode spectacularly. Betelgeuse is massive enough that when its day comes to shuffle of this mortal coil, it will certainly be as a supernova. When that happens, Betelgeuse will shine as big and bright as the moon in the night sky. And, according to astronomers, that day is coming soon. But that’s “soon” in star-time, which happens on a much longer scale than our puny little lives. Some estimates put Betelgeuse’s remaining life-span at around 100,000 years, but it could happen any day now. Probably not, though.

Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse is as big as the orbit of Jupiter.

The reason for the current hubbub surrounding Betelgeuse is its recent “fainting,” a sudden dramatic dip in brightness. If the star were to go supernova it would be the astronomical event of a lifetime, so any sudden ups and downs has the astronomy community a bit over-eager. That same mindset is how I lost all my money trading cryptocurrency. It’s a killer.

There’s been a drought of supernovas lately. The math says that a galaxy the size of the Milky Way should have a supernova roughly every 100 years. The last supernova in the Milky Way, however, occurred in 1604, before the telescope was even invented. So it really is overdue. But even though Betelgeuse blowing up would be just about the most spectacular supernova possible, it’s probably not going to happen. Yet.

Supernova

Artists rendition of a supernova

There are a couple of explanations for Betelgeuse’s fainting that are more likely than its sudden and violent death. First, Betelgeuse is a variable star, meaning that it goes through cycles of brightness. Some points in the cycle are dim, and others are bright. This current fainting is dimmer than any other cycle on record, but there hasn’t been a record for all that long.

The other explanation is that Betelgeuse’s stellar wind, a million times stronger than that of the sun, may have caused it to eject an abnormally high amount of dust, which would cause an anomalous drop in brightness.

Or it might blow up. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be a threat to us. Although, that is what they would want you to think.

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Sequoyah is a writer, music producer, and poor man's renaissance man based in Providence, Rhode Island. He spends his time researching weird history and thinking about the place where cosmic horror overlaps with disco. You can follow him on Twitter: @shkennedy33.