After an article on an Australian website, News.com.au, quoted a physics professor saying that Betelgeuse might go supernova on us and light up the sky like a second Sun, and speculated that it might happen next year, the the MSM and the blogosphere went into a frenzy.“Will the Earth have Two Suns by 2012?” a representative headline on Time.com blared. The Huffington Post breathlessly proclaimed: “
A Betelgeuse flamout in 2012, of course, would be just in time for the end of the Maya calendar, the shifting of the Earth’s poles, and the long-lost continent of Atlantis to rise from the sea with Edgar Cayce at the helm. And the Star Wars fanboys among us, no doubt, were particularly excited by the possibility of actually living on a planet that in one respect would resemble Tatooine, the fictional home of the Skywalker clan.
We have to admit that we weren’t as thrilled about this potential development, since if our hazy recollection of George Lucas lore serves us correctly, that imaginary planet’s twin stars so scorched its surface that the whole place was a dustry desert, where water was difficult to come by. It did, however, strike us as sorta cool that the sky might turn so bright that, at least for a few weeks, we might need to emulate 80s pop singer Corey Hart and wear our sunglasses at night.
But leave it to those killjoy realists in science-journalism world to ruin it all for us. As it turns out, the whole thing might not happen for a million years, and even when it does, it might not be nearly as spectacular as initially hyped.
This all started when News.com.au published an interview with Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland. He told the publication that Betelgeuse, an aging star 20 times the size of our Sun and the ninth-brightest star in the night sky, is running out of the fuel needed to sustain the fusion reaction at its core. When the needle finally hits empty, the whole shebang will collapse on itself, causing a giant explosion tens of millions of times brighter than our Sun.
“This is the final hurrah for the star,” as Carter put it.
Carter, it should be noted, didn’t actually put a date on the conflagration. In fact, since Betelgeuse is more than 600 light years away, the event conceivably could have already happened centuries ago, with the resulting burst of radiation still on its way to Earth. Or it might not happen for another million years, as the News.com.au article noted a few graphs down. Carter also carefully explained that such a distant supernova wouldn’t pose a risk to Earth, and that the torrent of neutrinos exuded by the dying star most likely would simply pass through our bodies unnoticed, without harming us. Not that anybody actually read that far down. They had us at 2012!
But that was when astronomer Phil Plait, in a blog post at Discover Magazine’s website, throughly blew to bits the whole Betelgeuse-as-a-Second-Sun in 2012 meme.
I’m an actual scientist, and I would give the odds of Betelgeuse going supernova in 2012 at all — let alone close to December, the supposed doomsdate — as many thousands to one against. It’s not impossible, it’s just really really really really really really really unlikely.
Plait even disputed Carter’s prediction that Betelgeuse would briefly turn night into day.
At 600+ light years, a supernova would be pretty bright, but hardly bright enough to be a second Sun, as both articles say. Sorry, no Tatooine-like sunsets for us. It wouldn’t even be as bright as the full Moon, really, but certainly far brighter than Venus. Enough to cast a shadow, which would actually be pretty cool.
Indeed. An exploding Betelgeuse, even if it’s just a relatively minor presence in the sky, would be way cool. Remember that the last time a supernova was visible from Earth was in October 1604, long enough ago that Johannes Kepler, discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, was the astronomer who documented it. According a 1943 scientific article, Nova Ophiuchi was about 13,000 light years away, so it was not a particularly brilliant sight. It peaked in luminosity in mid October of that year, it was about the brightness of Jupiter. Within a few weeks, it had faded considerably, so that it was estimated to be as bright as the red supergiant Antares, the 16th brightest star in the sky. (From NASA, here’s a 2004 article about how orbital observatories have analyzed the remnants of Kepler’s supernova.)
Before that, in 1572, Tyco Brache, the pioneering Danish astronomer, observed a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia that was visible from November until March of the following year, and at its peak attained the brightness of Venus. That observation was a milestone in the history of astronomy, because it compelled scientists to abandon the belief that the heavens were constant and unchanging. Here’s a DailyGalaxy article on that supernova.