Betelgeuse

In astronomy, Betelgeuse is the name of which type of object?

And the answer is: star.

Artist rendering of Betelgeuse's supernova. Photo Courtesy: European Southern Observatory/L. Calçada.

Found in the Orion constellation, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. One of the largest known stars, Betelgeuse is a type of star known as a red supergiant, and is about 950 times the size of our sun. There is recent evidence that the star's life cycle will end soon, resulting in a fiery explosion known as a supernova.

The name Betelgeuse comes from Arabic, translating to “the giant’s shoulder.” Indeed, nestled right on Orion's shoulder, the star has burned its way into the lore and histories of sky-gazers across the globe, dating so far back that it earns mentions in the oral histories of Aboriginal Australians.

At just 725 lightyears away, Betelgeuse is the one of the closest and brightest stars available for study. Even so, at such a distance, it takes around 600 years for the light from Betelgeuse to reach Earth. This means that if the red giant blew up in the European Middle Ages, the light would only now be reaching Earth!

In 2019, astronomers began to buzz when it appeared that the red giant was dimming– at the end of their life, stars often begin to vary in brightness and eventually drop to a dim glow before the bright supernova explosion. However, recent studies from NASA suggest that the dimming was not so much a supernova event but more a expulsion of heat– observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope suggest that hot material ejected into space by the star formed a dust cloud dense enough to block starlight.

In the next 100,000 years, humanity will get a chance to witness Betelgeuse's fiery end. Until then, scientists have a front row seat to the end of this star's life. To learn more about this supernova waiting to happen, check out the video below.


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