Betelgeuse may explode and become a supernova: is there a threat to Earth and what will it look like

Dmytro IvancheskulLife
Eventually, Betelgeuse will become a supernova, but only our distant descendants will see it. Source: OBOZREVATEL/NASA

One of the brightest stars in the sky, Betelgeuse, a red speck in the Orion constellation, has been surprising scientists lately with its behavior. At the end of 2019 and in 2020, it supposedly weakened, but now it is back and even more powerful than before. Therefore, there are discussions online and in the scientific community about the likelihood of the star exploding and becoming a supernova.

OBOZREVATEL gives details about what is happening to Betelgeuse, as well as what could happen if the star does explode (although most scientists do not believe this).

What's going on with Betelgeuse?

In 2019, scientists first took a concerned look at Earth's neighbor. Then the star suddenly dimmed and remained so until 2020. This event was called a major eclipse.

However, scientists who began to study its behavior concluded that this, although spectacular, was a normal situation. They determined that the eclipse was part of the normal restless activity of a giant star also observed in the past.

It turned out that Betelgeuse had emitted a cloud of dust and gas into space, which caused the cooling of the star's southern hemisphere, which is facing the Earth. Therefore, it seemed to us that the star dimmed.

The Darkening of Betelgeuse

But in 2023, the star attracted attention again when it not only regained its brightness, but also increased it by 50% in a matter of weeks. This is what led to rumors that it was about to explode.

OBOZREVATEL already wrote more about it here.

Is it true that Betelgeuse will become a supernova?

In time, Betelgeuse will indeed explode and become a supernova. It is promised to be quite a spectacle (but more on that later). However, scientists are convinced that we are not talking about months, years, or even decades.

What's more, astrophysicist Andrea Dupree believes that people currently living on Earth will definitely not witness the phenomenon.

"The star will go supernova, but not in our lifetime," Dupree is convinced.

It will probably be thousands of years before Betelgeuse reaches the stage where the star runs out of fuel and collapses into itself by gravity.

According to some predictions, this will take at least 10 thousand years. However, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Manchester Albert Zijlstra generally suggests that we are talking about a million years.

However, there are some signs that do make scientists wonder what's going on with the star. Here are a few of them:

  • Betelgeuse is 15-20 times more massive than our Sun and is now in the Red Giant stage - and this is the "death phase", albeit a long-term one;
  • it rotates faster than other stars of this type; there is speculation that Betelgeuse swallowed a companion planet;
  • the ancient documents described the star as a "yellowish Saturn" and we see it reddish now, so could it be that it has changed color and if so, does this mean that evolution is faster than predicted and a supernova could happen faster too?

Scientists have no answers to that. But neither does panic. Exhale.

And if Betelgeuse does explode...

For those who want to know exactly what awaits them in the future, or for those who believe in conspiracy theories and are already convinced that Betelgeuse is about to explode and we are simply being lied to, we tell you exactly how the star may explode and whether such a supernova threatens people on Earth.

Don't wait for the "big boom. Of course, it will be quite a spectacle, but the Earth will not be covered by a shock wave, skyscrapers will not fall like matches, and the sea will not rise as a wall...

A supernova explosion would just give a good brightness to our sky, because such objects can be so bright that they can be seen even in the daytime. The only problem is that it has only happened a few times in the last 1000 years. And if a supernova explodes near Earth, it will be quite a sensation for astronomers.

As Betelgeuse is roughly 500 light-years from Earth, a supernova would cause our planet to be hit by a "rain" of massless particles called neutrinos. Fortunately, they can't do us any harm.

After that, we would have seen the star in the sky become much brighter, and in a week or two its brightness would have been comparable to the glow of the full moon. Perhaps it would even be visible during the day. Impressive, but not fatal at all.

Over the next few months, Betelgeuse would begin to fade little by little, but would still be visible by day for up to six months or a year. For about two more years it would be visible to the naked eye in the night sky, and only then would it disappear.

So no threat to people?

The short answer is no. Scientists know that supernovae are capable of producing high-energy particles capable of passing through Earth's magnetic field shield, but there won't be enough of them to harm us.

The explosion also produces radioactive iron, but Betelgeuse is too far away for this substance to harm us. Scientists have previously found radioactive iron from supernova explosions on the seafloor of the Earth and on the Moon. It is believed that it was thrown to us by a supernova that existed 300 light years away. But it also had no effect on the life forms that existed on Earth at that time.

If a supernova had exploded a few tens of light-years away, it could have destroyed the ozone layer and caused dangerous levels of ultraviolet light to penetrate the Earth and lead to species extinction. But such a close supernova, scientists believe, can only occur once every billion years.

Betelgeuse photo

Earlier OBOZREVATEL also told about what happens when our Milky Way galaxy crashes into Andromeda.

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