Betelgeuse’s Flickering

A simulation showing what the surface of Betelgeuse would look like to the human eye.

Between November 2019 and March 2020 Betelgeuse, the red supergiant star in the constellation Orion’s left shoulder, experienced what’s being called the Great Dimming. Usually, the star is one of the ten brightest stars in the sky, often visible even in the suburban sprawl. But as of February 2020, it had dimmed by a factor of 2.5.

Observers speculated all sorts of causes, including the idea that this was a precursor to a supernova explosion. Instead, it’s a relatively normal occurrence for a star like Betelgeuse. The image above is from a numerical simulation of the star, and it shows approximately what it would look like to the human eye over a 7.5 year time span. As you can see, its brightness varies noticeably, and its surface seems almost to boil. This has to do with convection in the star. Compared to a star like our sun, Betelgeuse has fewer — and much larger — convection cells.

With a little more time and data, astronomers pinned down the exact source of Betelgeuse’s flickering during the Great Dimming. The year before the star belched an enormous bubble of gas into space. Then, when part of the star cooled in the aftermath, that gas condensed and formed a dust cloud which partially obscured the star. You can see an artist’s conception of the situation in the video below. (Image and research credit: B. Freytag; research credit: M. Montargès et al.; video credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

    1. Nicole Sharp

      Well, yes and no. They can estimate about how long the star will burn, but since a star’s lifetime is millions or billions of years, that doesn’t give us much information about whether a supernova is likely on any given day. Currently estimates put Betelgeuse as likely to supernova in the next 100,000 years, but that’s a pretty big window!

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