Friday, April 12, 2024

PHALON’S FILE: A Star Turn

There is a big, red, bloated, volatile ball of gas in our midst, and it’s expected to explode at any time. No, not that one.

This one is an actual star: Betelgeuse.

A star in the constellation Orion, Betelgeuse has been showing signs that it may turn into a supernova today or tomorrow. Or maybe a thousand years from now. But astronomers believe the conditions are right for Betelgeuse to blow at any time.

And this past June, astronomers at Cornell University published a study that suggests the big blow could happen in “tens of years.”

If we see Betelgeuse turn into a supernova tomorrow, it will have actually happened about 642 years ago. Without going all Stephen Hawking on you, Betelgeuse is far enough away that it takes the light we see 642 years to reach Earth.

By comparison, it takes the light from the sun about eight minutes to get to terra firma. The image we see of Betelgeuse as I type this is how it looked in the year 1381, right smack in the Middles Ages and halfway through the Hundred Years’ War.

So, people have been looking at Betelgeuse for a long time, and you can, too! This evening, if the skies are favorable!

It’s very easy to find in the sky during the fall and winter months. Orion the hunter is one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky. It can be spotted in the early part of the night by looking toward the southeast, rising a few minutes later each night until it becomes invisible in the daytime sky during the summer.

The three stars that form Irion’s belt will likely be the first thing you see. Betelgeuse represents his shoulder, and it can be found by looking just above the belt, to the left, just about where Orion’s armpit would be. You’ll know it by its distinctive red color, visible even to the naked eye.

Betelgeuse is what’s known as a red supergiant, a star that is approaching the end of its life. Stars are born when clouds of cosmic dust gather and coalesce into a hydrogen-burning body similar to our own sun.

But as a star ages, it expands and evolves into a red giant. If the sun were replaced by Betelgeuse, we’d be toast because its diameter would extend beyond Mars, almost to Jupiter.

This is about the time a star runs out of fuel and starts behaving weirdly. Most textbooks would tell you that Betelgeuse is the 11th brightest star visible from Earth, and it was for the thousands of years it has been observed by humans.

But starting in 2020, Betelgeuse has dimmed and brightened sporadically, altering the familiar star light, like the way the New York City skyline looks when the Empire State Building goes dark late at night.

Betelgeuse is expected to collapse into itself then erupt into a cosmic fireball that would likely be a bright as a full moon. Eventually it would collapse again into a black hole or a neutron star.

While recent supernovas too far away to be seen with the naked eye have been detected with modern technology, the last one that was visible to ordinary people burst onto the sky in 1604, visible as the brightest object in the sky for three weeks.

It could happen tomorrow. Or in 100,000 years. But all the signs are there. And just to be sure, Betelgeuse is 3,852 trillion miles away. A supernova would be about as dangerous to Earth as somebody sneezing on Pluto.

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.