This past week, the star Betelgeuse (Orion’s “left shoulder”) dimmed. Most reports jumped on the supernova angle. What really happened? There’s nothing like a space mystery to spark interest …
For a quick background: A burst of gravitational waves was detected near the star Betelgeuse. At the same time, Betelgeuse has mysteriously dimmed in recent weeks. So, many folks wondered if the red supergiant was about to explode. Gravitation waves are often related to big cosmic events happening in space.
My take: It’s true that Betelgeuse is the sky’s surest first magnitude (bright) star whose nature is ripe to blow up into a supernova.
But while that could happen tonight, it could also happen in 100,000 years. And the current strange dimming of Betelgeuse may have nothing to do with its supernova readiness.
As of the weekend, Betelgeuse is still there. It has not exploded. Maybe not much of a mystery there. However, it’s maintaining its record low faintness. Will it get brighter again? Stay tuned.
What’s weird is how its constellation of Orion has changed. Skygazers through the centuries are familiar with Orion’s shape—its three-in-a-row belt stars, its resemblance to a human figure, and its two bright stars.
The blue-white one in Orion’s right foot, Rigel, is still blazing away with customary brilliance.
But the bright orange star Betelgeuse, which forms the hunter’s left shoulder, has faded to a dimness not seen in over a century. As of January 13, it visually looks about the same brightness as the other shoulder marked by the star Bellatrix (say Bel-LAY-trix).
Thus, the entire constellation looks different. The stuff of dreams!
Check it out the next clear night. Orion is now out all night long. It starts lowish in the east at nightfall, and stands halfway up the southern sky at midnight. This shouldn’t be missed.
Everyone’s watching: The Hunter has become the hunted!