Astronomers are reporting that the super-massive star, Betelgeuse, located 640 light years from Earth in the Orion constellation, is rapidly losing mass and shrinking. When a star the size of this red super-giant begins collapsing it can only lead to one thing: a supernova.
Betelgeuse is the second largest star in Orion and when it blows its intense light will be visible for weeks and could be seen across the Milky Way and eventually other nearby galaxies as well. That is, if there are others out there besides ourselves who are watching.
Supernovas are not frequent. The last one seen by observers on Earth occurred during the 11th Century and was recorded by Chinese astronomers. More recent novas have been observed in the far reaches of our galaxy and other distant galaxies.
Astronomically speaking, Betelgeuse is in our solar system’s back yard. It’s explosion will create a second sun in our sky, brilliant at night and possible bright enough to see during the daytime, perhaps so bright it will cast a second shadow.
May appear during 2012
Just in time to add fuel to the 2012 end-of-the-world Mayan calendar fervor, the supernova’s light may arrive. It could be very impressive and lead to some sociological changes on our planet. Some populations of lesser-educated Third World nations may react with fear and panic.
A new sun appearing in the sky may even drive some people mad.
Dr. Brad Carter, a Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland, interviewed about the coming supernova by Australia’s news.com said: “This old star is running out of fuel in its center. “This fuel keeps Betelgeuse shining and supported. When this fuel runs out the star will literally collapse in upon itself and it will do so very quickly.”
What follows next is an almost instantaneous chain reaction. The star will explosively expel the collapsing shell and drive it outwards with unthinkable energies at speeds approaching the speed of light. If planets were orbiting a star that undergoes a supernova all those worlds would be totally vaporized in a matter of seconds.
When Betelgeuse goes, it “…goes bang, it explodes, it lights up—we’ll have incredible brightness for a brief period of time for a couple of weeks and then over the coming months it begins to fade and then eventually it will be very hard to see at all,” Carter explained.
Astronomers are debating what the star’s supernova will lead to: a neutron star or a black hole? Carter says it could be either, but he leans towards the formation of a new black hole.
“If it were me, I’d suspect it would more likely become a black hole at 20 solar masses.”
Hopefully, the good doctor is wrong. Neutron stars are one thing, but having a black hole in our cosmic back yard may be just a bit too close for comfort—even if it is 640 light years away.