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Here is a compilation of articles on this star along with their respective links coming from various sources across alternative as well as mainstreram authors and writers where some of them are contributing to research on the understanding of this red giant in the field of astronomy.

Nonetheless it is evident from a long list of sources of information that this star has payed a pivotal role in the history of our Solar System as well as the life in and on its planets for a very long time.


Betelgeuse – A Giant Red Star

The star Betelgeuse is a very different type of star from the brilliant bluish-white or white Orion stars. It is a reddish in color and varies irregularly in brightness. Its distance from the earth is only about 160 light years as compared with a distance of over six hundred light years for Rigel, the three stars in the Belt, the stars in the Sword of Orion, and other Orion stars. Betelgeuse is one of the red giant stars and it has a diameter of over two hundred million miles. If placed at the center of our solar system in place of our own sun it would nearly fill all of the space within the orbit of Mars, and our own Earth would lie beneath its surface.

Yet there are now known to be giant stars that are even bulkier than Betelgeuse. Antares, in Scorpio, with a diameter of four hundred million miles and Mira, or Omicron Ceti, with a diameter of about two hundred and fifty million miles, both exceed Betelgeuse in size. The star in the Belt of Orion that lies farthest to the west is almost directly on the celestial equator so that it passes through the zenith at the Earth’s equator, and the constellation is seen equally well in the northern and southern hemispheres. South of the equator, though, the warrior appears to be standing in an inverted position with his feet directed toward the zenith and his head toward the horizon.

Orion will be visible throughout the winter and early spring, disappearing in the west soon after sunset in early May as Scorpio rises in the southeast. Possibly for this reason the story originated among the ancients that the sky-warrior was fleeing from The Scorpion. Apollo, so it was said, once sent Scorpio to sting Orion as a punishment for falling in love with the Goddess Diana. Through her intercession he was placed in the heavens opposite The Scorpion so that he might escape in the west as soon as Scorpio came into view in the east.

As Orion stands in threatening attitude facing Taurus his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, are close at his heels. If the line of stars that forms the Belt of Orion is continued toward the southeast it will pass not far from Sirius, The Dog-Star, brightest of all the stars. The Little Dog-Star, lies to the northeast of Sirius and although less brilliant by far than Sirius it is one of the twenty brightest stars in the heavens. With Sirius and Betelgeuse it forms a large triangle with sides nearly equal in length.

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Betelgeuse, also known by its Bayer designation Alpha Orionis (α Orionis, α Ori), is the ninth brightest star in the night sky and second brightest star in the constellation of Orion, outshining its neighbour Rigel (Beta Orionis) only rarely. Distinctly reddish-tinted, it is a semiregular variable star whose apparent magnitude varies between 0.2 and 1.2, the widest range of any first magnitude star. The star marks the upper right vertex of the Winter Triangle and center of the Winter Hexagon.

Classified as a red supergiant, Betelgeuse is one of the largest and most luminous stars known. If it were at the center of our Solar System, its surface would extend past the asteroid belt possibly to the orbit of Jupiter and beyond, wholly engulfing Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars. However, with distance estimates in the last century that have ranged anywhere from 180 to 1,300 light years from Earth, calculating its diameter, luminosity and mass have proven difficult. Betelgeuse is currently thought to lie around 640 light years away, yielding a mean absolute magnitude of about −6.05.

In 1920, Alpha Ori was the first star (after the Sun) to have its angular diameter measured. Since then, researchers have used a number of telescopes to measure this stellar giant, each with different technical parameters, often yielding conflicting results. Current estimates of the star’s diameter range from about .043 to .056 arcseconds, a moving target at best as Betelgeuse appears to change shape periodically. Because of limb darkening, variability, and angular diameters that vary with wavelength, the star remains a perplexing mystery. To complicate matters further, Betelgeuse has a complex, asymmetric envelope caused by colossal mass loss involving huge plumes of gas being expelled from its surface. There is even evidence of stellar companions orbiting within this gaseous envelope, possibly contributing to the star’s eccentric behavior.

Astronomers believe Betelgeuse is only 10 million years old, but has evolved rapidly because of its high mass. It is thought to be a runaway star from the Orion OB1 Association, which also includes the late type O and B stars in Orion’s beltAlnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Currently in a late stage of stellar evolution, Betelgeuse is expected to explode as a type II supernova, possibly within the next million years.




The pink arrow at the star on left labeled α indicates Betelgeuse in Orion.
Observation data
Epoch J2000.0 Equinox J2000.0
Constellation Orion
Pronunciation /ˈbiːtəldʒuːz/ or
Right ascension 05h 55m 10.3053s[2]
Declination +07° 24′ 25.426″[2]
Apparent magnitude (V) 0.42[2] (0.3 to 1.2)
Spectral type M2Iab[2]
U−B color index 2.06[3]
B−V color index 1.85[3]
Variable type SR c (Semi-Regular)[2]
Radial velocity (Rv) +21.91[2] km/s
Proper motion (μ) RA: 24.95 ± 0.08[4] mas/yr
Dec.: 9.56 ± 0.15[4] mas/yr
Parallax (π) 5.07 ± 1.10[4] mas
Distance 643 ± 146 [4] ly
(197 ± 45 [4] pc)
Absolute magnitude (MV) −6.05[5]
Mass ~18–19[6] M
Radius ~1,180[7] R
Surface gravity (log g) -0.5[8]
Luminosity ~140,000[9] L
Temperature 3,500[8][10] K
Metallicity 0.05 Fe/H[11]
Rotation 5 km/s[10]
Age ~1.0×107 [6] years
Other designations
Betelgeuse, α Ori, 58 Ori, HR 2061, BD +7° 1055, HD 39801, FK5 224, HIP 27989, SAO 113271, GC 7451, CCDM J05552+0724AP, AAVSO 0549+07
Database references


Observational history

Betelgeuse and its red coloration have been noted since antiquity; the classical astronomer Ptolemy described its color as “ὑπόκιρρος”, a term which was later described by a translator of Ulugh Beg‘s Zij-i Sultani as rubedinis, Latin for “ruddiness”.[12][13] With the history of astronomy intimately associated with mythology and astrology prior to the scientific revolution, the red star, like the planet Mars that derives its name from a Roman war god, has been closely associated with the martial archetype of conquest for millennia, and by extension the motif of death and rebirth.[12] Prior to the modern systems of stellar classification, Angelo Secchi had created his own system of spectral analysis with Betelgeuse as a prototype for his Class III (orange to red) stars.

Herschel’s discovery

Portrait of Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron a few years before his death.

The variation in Betelgeuse’s brightness was first described in 1836 by Sir John Herschel, when he published his observations in Outlines of Astronomy; he noted an increase in activity from 1836–1840, followed by a subsequent reduction. In 1849, he noted a shorter cycle of variability which peaked in 1852. Later observers recorded unusually high maxima with an interval of several years, but only small variations from 1957 to 1967. The records of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) show a maximum apparent magnitude (brightness) of 0.2 in the years 1933 and 1942, with a minimum fainter than magnitude 1.2 in both 1927 and 1941.[14][15] This variability in brightness may explain why Johann Bayer, with the publication of his Uranometria in 1603, designated the star alpha as it may have rivalled the usually brighter Rigel (beta).[16]

In 1920, Albert Michelson and Francis Pease mounted a 6 metre (20 ft) interferometer on the front of the 2.5 metre (100 inch) telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory. Helped by John Anderson, the trio measured the angular diameter of α Orionis at 0.047, a figure which resulted in a diameter of 3.84 × 108 km (240 million miles or 2.58 AU) based on the then-current parallax value of 0.018.[17] However there was known uncertainty owing to limb darkening and measurement errors—a central theme which would be the focus of scientific inquiry for almost a century. Beginning with this first angular measurement at visible wavelengths, researchers have since conducted multiple investigations ranging from the ultraviolet to the mid infrared with controvertible results.

The 1950s and ’60s saw important scientific developments, the two Stratoscope projects and the 1958 publication of Structure and Evolution of the Stars, principally the work of Martin Schwarzschild and his close colleague at Princeton University, Richard Härm.[18][19] The book taught a generation of astrophysicists how to use nascent computer technology to create stellar models while the Stratoscope projects, by taking instrumented balloons above the Earth’s turbulence, produced some of the finest images of solar granules and sunspots ever seen, thus confirming the existence of convection in the solar atmosphere.[18] Both developments would prove to have a significant impact on our understanding of the structure of red supergiants like Betelgeuse.

Aperture masking

Betelgeuse imaged in ultraviolet light by the Hubble Space Telescope and subsequently enhanced by NASA.[20]

The 1970s saw several notable advances in interferometry from the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory working in the infrared and Antoine Labeyrie in the visible, when researchers began to combine images from multiple telescopes and later invented “fringe-tracking” technology. But it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Betelgeuse became a regular target for aperture masking interferometry that significant breakthroughs occurred in visible-light and infrared imaging. Pioneered by John E. Baldwin and other colleagues of the Cavendish Astrophysics Group, the new technique contributed some of the most accurate measurements of Betelgeuse to date while revealing a number of bright spots on the star’s photosphere.[21][22][23] These were the first optical and infrared images of a stellar disk other than the Sun, first from ground-based interferometers and later from higher-resolution observations of the COAST telescope, with the “bright patches” or “hotspots” potentially corroborating a theory put forth by Schwarzschild decades earlier of massive convection cells dominating the stellar surface.[24][25]

In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Faint Object Camera captured an ultraviolet image of comparable resolution—the first conventional-telescope image (or “direct-image” in NASA terminology) of the disk of another star. The image was taken at ultraviolet wavelengths since ground-based instruments cannot produce images in the ultraviolet with the same precision as Hubble. Like earlier images, this ultraviolet image also contained a bright patch, indicating a hotter region of about 2,000K, in this case on the southwestern portion of the star’s surface.[26] Subsequent utraviolet spectra taken with the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph suggested that the hot spot was one of Betelgeuse’s poles of rotation. This would give the rotational axis an inclination of about 20° to the direction of Earth, and a position angle from celestial North of about 55°.[27]

[edit] Recent studies

AAVSO V-band light curve of Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) from Dec. 1988 – Aug. 2002

The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed major advances on multiple fronts, the most central of which have been the imaging of the star’s photosphere at different wavelengths and the study of α Ori’s complex circumstellar shells. At the dawn of the millennium, Betelgeuse was measured in the mid-infrared using the Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) producing a limb darkened estimate of 55.2 ± 0.5 milliarcseconds (mas)—a figure entirely consistent with Michelson’s findings eighty years earlier.[17][28] At the time of its publication, the estimated parallax from the Hipparcos mission was 7.63 ± 1.64 mas, yielding an estimated radius for Betelgeuse of 3.6 AU. However, numerous interferometric studies in the near-infrared have appeared since from the Paranal Observatory in Chile arguing for much tighter diameters. Nevertheless, on June 9, 2009, Nobel Laureate Charles Townes announced that the star had shrunk 15% since 1993 at an increasing rate. He presented evidence that UC Berkeley‘s ISI atop Mt. Wilson Observatory had observed 15 consecutive years of stellar contraction. Despite the apparent diminution of Betelgeuse’s size, Townes and his colleague, Edward Wishnow, pointed out that the star’s visible brightness, or magnitude, which is monitored regularly by members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), had shown no significant dimming over that same time frame.[29][30] This finding of a diminishing radius coupled with a relatively constant flux puts into question some of the fundamental theories of stellar structure.

Enveloping this whole discussion have been numerous inquiries into the abstruse dynamics of Betelgeuse’s extended atmosphere. For decades astronomers have understood that red giants dominate mass return to the Galaxy creating opaque outer shells, yet the actual mechanics of such stellar mass loss have remained a mystery.[31] With recent advances in interferometric methodologies, astronomers may be close to resolving this conundrum. In July 2009, images released by the European Southern Observatory, taken by the ground-based Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI), showed vast plumes of gas being ejected into the surrounding atmosphere with distances approximating 30 AU.[10][32] Comparable to the distance between the Sun and Neptune, this mass ejection is but one of multiple dynamics occurring in the surrounding atmosphere. Astronomers have identified at least 6 different shells surrounding Betelgeuse. As the century unfolds, solving the mystery of mass loss in the late stages of a star’s evolution may reveal those factors which precipitate the explosive deaths of these stellar giants.[29]

[edit] Visibility

The location of Betelgeuse near the famous “Belt of Orion“.

Betelgeuse is easy to spot in the night sky, as it appears in close proximity to the famous belt of Orion and has a distinctive orange-red color to the naked eye. In the Northern Hemisphere, beginning in January of each year, it can be seen rising in the east just after sunset. By mid-March, the star is due south in the evening sky and visible to virtually every inhabited region of the globe, with only a few obscure research stations in Antarctica at latitudes south of 82° unable to see it. In large cities in the Southern Hemisphere (e.g., Sydney, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town) the star rises almost 49° above the horizon. Once May arrives, the red giant can be glimpsed but briefly on the western horizon just after the Sun sets.

The apparent magnitude of α Ori is listed in SIMBAD at 0.42, making it on average the ninth brightest star in the celestial sphere—just ahead of Achernar. Because Betelgeuse is a variable star whose brightness ranges between 0.2 and 1.2, there are periods when it will surpass Procyon to become the eighth brightest star. As Rigel, with a nominal apparent magnitude of 0.12, has been reported to fluctuate slightly in brightness, by 0.03 to 0.3 magnitudes,[33] it is also possible for Betelgeuse to occasionally outshine Rigel and become the seventh brightest star. At its faintest, it will fall behind Deneb as the 19th brightest star and compete with Mimosa for the 20th position.

Image from ESO‘s Very Large Telescope showing not only the stellar disk, but also an extended atmosphere with a previously unknown plume of surrounding gas.[34]

Betelgeuse has a color index (B–V) of 1.85—a figure which points to the advanced “redness” of this celestial object. The photosphere has an extended atmosphere which displays strong lines of emission rather than absorption, a phenomenon which occurs when a star is surrounded by a thick gaseous envelope. This extended gaseous atmosphere has been observed moving both away from and towards Betelgeuse, depending apparently on radial velocity fluctuations in the photosphere. Only about 13% of the star’s radiant energy is emitted in the form of visible light, with most of its radiation occurring in the infrared. If our eyes were sensitive to radiation at all wavelengths, Betelgeuse would appear as the brightest star in the sky.[15]

[edit] Parallax

Since the first successful parallax measurement was conducted in 1838 by Friedrich Bessel, astronomers have been puzzled by Betelgeuse’s distance, the uncertainty of which has made reliable estimates of many stellar parameters difficult. An accurate distance and angular diameter will reveal a star’s radius and effective temperature, leading to a clear understanding of bolometric luminosity; luminosity combined with an understanding of isotopic abundances provides an estimate of the stellar age and mass.[4] In 1920, when the first interferometric studies were performed on the star’s diameter, the assumed parallax was 0.180 arcseconds. That equated to a distance of 56 parsecs (pc) or roughly 180 light years (ly) and produced not only an inaccurate radius for the star, but every other stellar characteristic. Since then, there has been an ongoing inquiry as to the actual distance of this mysterious star with proposed distances as high as 400 parsecs or about 1,300 light years.[4]

Before the publication of the Hipparcos Catalogue (1997), there were two respected publications with up-to-date parallax data on Betelgeuse. The first was the Yale University Observatory (1991) with a published parallax of π = 9.8 ± 4.7 mas, yielding a distance of roughly 102 pc or 330 ly.[35] The second was the Hipparcos Input Catalogue (1993) with a trigonometric parallax of π = 5 ± 4 mas, a distance of 200 pc or 650 ly—almost twice the Yale estimate.[36] With such uncertainty, researchers were adopting a wide range of distance estimates, a phenomenon which fueled much debate—not only in terms of the star’s distance, but also its impact on other stellar parameters.[4]

Image showing one of NRAO‘s Very Large Arrays located at Socorro, New Mexico, USA. Each of the 27 antennas weighs 209 metric tons and can be moved as needed on railroad tracks allowing the array to perform detailed studies using aperture synthesis interferometry.

The long-awaited results from the Hipparcos mission were finally released in 1997. Instead of resolving the issue, a new parallax figure was published of π = 7.63 ± 1.64 mas, which equated to a distance of 131 pc or roughly 430 ly.[37] Because stars like Betelgeuse vary in brightness, they raise specific problems in quantifying their distance.[38] As a result, the large cosmic error in the Hipparcos solution could well be of stellar origin, relating possibly to movements of the photocenter, of order 3.4 mas, in the Hipparcos photometric Hp band.[4][39]

Recent advances in radio astronomy appear to have prevailed in this debate. New high spatial resolution, multi-wavelength radio positions of Betelgeuse conducted by Graham Harper and colleagues using NRAO‘s Very Large Array (VLA) have produced a more precise estimate, which combined with the recent Hipparcos data furnished a new astrometric solution: π = 5.07 ± 1.10 mas, a tighter error factor yielding a distance of 197 ± 45 pc or 643 ± 146 ly.[4]

Artist rendering of the upcoming Gaia mission with its expected launch in 2012.

The next computational breakthrough will likely come from the European Space Agency‘s upcoming Gaia mission when it undertakes a detailed analysis of physical properties for each star observed, revealing luminosity, temperature, gravity and composition. Gaia will achieve this by repeatedly measuring the positions of all objects down to magnitude 20, and those brighter than magnitude 15, to an accuracy of 24 microarcseconds—akin to measuring the diameter of a human hair from 1000 km away. On-board detection equipment will ensure that variable stars like Betelgeuse will all be detected to this faint limit, thus addressing most of the limitations of the earlier Hipparcos mission. The nearest stars, in fact, will have their distances measured to within an unprecedented 0.001% error factor. Even stars near the Galactic centre, some 30,000 light-years away, will have their distances measured to within a factor of 20%.[40]

[edit] Variability

Ultraviolet image of Betelgeuse showing the star’s asymmetrical pulsations, expansion and contraction.

As a pulsating variable star with sub-classification “SRC”, researchers have offered different hypotheses to explain α Ori’s volatile choreography—a phenomenon which causes an absolute magnitude oscillation from −5.27 and −6.27.[41] Our current understanding of stellar structure suggests that the outer layers of this supergiant gradually expand and contract, causing the surface area (photosphere) to alternately increase and decrease, and the temperature to rise and fall—thus eliciting the measured cadence in the star’s brightness between its dimmest magnitude of 1.2, seen as early as 1927, and its brightest of 0.2, seen in 1933 and 1942. A red supergiant like Betelgeuse will pulsate this way because its stellar atmosphere is inherently unstable. As the star contracts, it absorbs more and more of the energy that passes through it, causing the atmosphere to heat up and expand. Conversely, as the star expands, its atmosphere becomes less dense allowing the energy to escape and the atmosphere to cool, thus initiating a new contraction phase.[14] Calculating the star’s pulsations and modeling its periodicity have been difficult, as it appears there are several cycles interlaced. As discussed in papers by Stebbins and Sanford in the 1930s, there are short-term variations of around 150 to 300 days that modulate a regular cyclic variation with a period of roughly 5.7 years.[42][43]

An illustration of the structure of the Sun showing photospheric granules :
1. Core
2. Radiative zone
3. Convective zone
4. Photosphere
5. Chromosphere
6. Corona
7. Sunspot
8. Granules
9. Prominence

In fact, the supergiant consistently displays irregular photometric, polarimetric and spectroscopic variations, which points to complex activity on the star’s surface and in its extended atmosphere.[21] In marked contrast to most giant stars that are typically long period variables with reasonably regular periods, red giants are generally semiregular or irregular with pulsating characteristics. In a landmark paper published in 1975, Martin Schwarzschild attributed these brightess fluctuations to the changing granulation pattern formed by a few giant convection cells covering the surface of these stars.[25][44] For the Sun, these convection cells, otherwise known as solar granules, represent the foremost mode of heat transfer—hence those convective elements which dominate the brightness variations in the solar photosphere.[25] The typical diameter for a solar granule is about 2,000 km (yielding a surface area roughly the size of India), with an average depth of 700 km. With a surface of roughly 6 trillion km2, there are about 2 million of such granules lying on the Sun’s photosphere, which because of their number produce a relatively constant flux. Beneath these granules, it is conjectured that there are 5 to 10 thousand supergranules, the average diameter of which is 30,000 km with a depth of about 10,000 km.[45] By contrast, Schwardschild argues that stars like Betelgeuse may have only a dozen monster granules with diameters of 180 million km or more dominating the surface of the star with depths of about 60 million km, which, because of the very low temperatures and extremely low density found in red giant envelopes, result in convective inefficiency. Consequently, if only a third of these convective cells are visible to us at any one time, the time variations in their observable light may well be reflected in the brightness variations of the integrated light of the star.[25]

Schwarzschild’s hypothesis of gigantic convection cells dominating the surface of red giants and supergiants seems to have stuck with the astronomical community. When the Hubble Space Telescope captured its first direct image of Betelgeuse in 1995 revealing a mysterious hot spot, astronomers attributed it to convection.[46] Two years later, astronomers observed intricate asymmetries in the brightness distribution of the star revealing at least three bright spots, the magnitude of which was “consistent with convective surface hotspots”.[22] Then in the year 2000, another team of astronomers led by Alex Lobel of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) noted that Betelgeuse exhibits raging storms of hot and cold gas in its turbulent atmosphere. The team surmised that huge areas of the star’s photosphere vigorously bulge out in different directions at times, ejecting long plumes of warm gas into the cold dust envelope. Another explanation that was also given was the occurrence of shock waves caused by warm gas traversing cooler regions of the star.[43][47] The team investigated the atmosphere of Betelgeuse over a period of five years between 1998 and 2003 with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph aboard Hubble. They found that the bubbling action of the chromosphere tosses gas out one side of the star, while it falls inward at the other side, similar to the slow-motion churning of a lava lamp.

[edit] Angular size

A third challenge that has confronted astronomers has been measuring the star’s angular diameter. On December 13, 1920, Betelgeuse became the first star outside the Solar System to ever have its diameter measured.[17] Although interferometry was still in its infancy, the experiment proved a success and Betelgeuse was found to have a uniform disk of .047 arcseconds. The astronomers’ insights on limb darkening were noteworthy; in addition to a measurement error of 10%, the team concluded that the stellar disk was likely 17% larger due to the diminishing intensity of light around the edges—hence an angular diameter of about .055.[17][30] Since then, there have been other studies conducted, which have produced angles that range from .042 to .069 arcseconds.[28][48][49] Combining that data with historical distance estimates of 180 to 815 ly yields a projected diameter of the stellar disk of anywhere from 2.4 to 17.8 AU, hence a radius of 1.2 to 8.9 AU respectively.[note 1] Using the Solar System as a yardstick, the orbit of Mars is about 1.5 AU, Ceres in the asteroid belt 2.7 AU, Jupiter 5.5 AU—consequently a photosphere which, depending on Betelgeuse’s actual distance from Earth, could well extend beyond the Jovian orbit but not quite as far as Saturn at 9.5 AU.

Radio image showing the size of Betelgeuse’s photosphere (circle) and the effect of convective forces on the star’s asymmetric atmosphere as it expands beyond the orbit of Saturn.

The precise diameter has been hard to define for several reasons:

  1. The rhythmic expansion and contraction of the photosphere, as theory suggests, means the diameter is never constant;
  2. There is no definable “edge” to the star as limb darkening causes the optical emissions to vary in color and decrease the farther one extends out from the center;
  3. Betelgeuse is surrounded by a circumstellar envelope composed of matter being ejected from the star—matter which both absorbs and emits light—making it difficult to define the edge of the photosphere;[29]
  4. Measurements can be taken at varying wavelengths within the electromagnetic spectrum, with each wavelength revealing something different. Studies have shown that angular diameters are considerably larger at visible wavelengths, decrease to a minimum in the near-infrared, only to increase again in the mid-infrared.[50][51] The difference in reported diameters can be as much as 30–35%, yet because each wavelength measures something different, comparing one finding with another is problematic;[29]
  5. Atmospheric twinkling limits the resolution obtainable from ground-based telescopes since turbulence degrades angular resolution.[21]

To overcome these challenges, researchers have employed various solutions. The concept of astronomical interferometry was first conceived by Hippolyte Fizeau in 1868.[52] He proposed the observation of stars through two apertures to obtain interferences that would furnish information on the star’s spatial intensity distribution. Since then, the science of interferometry has evolved considerably where multiple-aperture interferometers are now used consisting of numerous images superimposed on each other. These “speckled” images are then synthesized using Fourier analysis—a method used for a wide array of astronomical objects including the study of binary stars, quasars, asteroids and galactic nuclei.[53] The emergence of adaptive optics since 1990 has revolutionized high angular resolution astronomy,[54] while space observatories like Hipparcos, Hubble and Spitzer have produced other significant breakthroughs.[20][55] Recently another instrument, the Astronomical Multi-BEam Recombiner (AMBER), is providing new insights. As part of the VLTI, AMBER is capable of combining the beams of three telescopes simultaneously, allowing researchers to achieve milliarcsecond spatial resolution. Also by combining three baselines instead of two, which is customary with conventional interferometry, AMBER enables astronomers to compute the closure phase—an important element in astronomical imaging.[56][57]

The current debate revolves around which wavelength—the visible, near-infrared (NIR) or mid-infrared (MIR)—produces the most accurate angular measurement.[note 1] The most widely adopted solution, it appears, is the one performed with the ISI in the mid-infrared by astronomers from the Space Sciences Laboratory at U.C. Berkeley. In the epoch year 2000, the group, under the leadership of John Weiner, published a paper showing Betelgeuse with a uniform disk of 54.7 ± 0.3 mas, ignoring any possible contribution from hotspots, which are less noticeable in the mid-infrared.[28] The paper also included a theoretical allowance for limb darkening yielding a diameter of 55.2 ± 0.5 mas—a figure which equates to a radius of roughly 5.5 AU (1,180 R), assuming a distance of 197.0 ± 45 pc.[note 2] Nevertheless, given the angular error factor of ± 0.5 mas combined with a parallax error of ± 45 pc found in Harper’s numbers, the photosphere’s radius could actually be as small as 4.2 AU or as large as 6.9 AU.[58]

Across the Atlantic, another team of astronomers led by Guy Perrin of the Observatoire de Paris produced a document in 2004 arguing that the near-infrared figure of 43.33 ± 0.04 mas was a more accurate photospheric measurement.[50] “A consistent scenario to explain the observations of this star from the visible to the mid-infrared can be set-up”, Perrin reports. “The star is seen through a thick, warm extended atmosphere that scatters light at short wavelengths thus slightly increasing its diameter. The scatter becomes negligible above 1.3 μm. The upper atmosphere being almost transparent in K and L—the diameter is minimum at these wavelengths where the classical photosphere can be directly seen. In the mid-infrared, the thermal emission of the warm atmosphere increases the apparent diameter of the star.” The argument has yet to receive widespread support among astronomers.[29]

More recent studies done in the near-infrared with the IOTA and VLTI have brought strong support to Perrin’s analysis yielding diameters that range from 42.57 to 44.28 mas with minimal error factors less than than 0.04 mas.[59][60] Central to this discussion, however, is a second paper published by the Berkeley team in 2009, this time led by Charles Townes, reporting that the radius of Betelgeuse had actually shrunk from 1993 to 2009 by 15%, with the 2008 angular measurement equal to 47.0 mas, not too far from Perrin’s estimate.[30][61] Unlike most papers heretofore published, this study encompassed a 15 year horizon at one specific wavelength. Earlier studies have typically lasted one to two years by comparison and have explored multiple wavelengths, often yielding vastly different results. The diminution in angular separation equates to a range of values between 56.0 ± 0.1 mas seen in 1993 to 47.0 ± 0.1 mas seen in 2008—a contraction of almost 0.9 AU in 15 years or roughly 1,000 km per hour.[note 3] What is not fully known is whether this observation is evidence of a rhythmic expansion and contraction of the star as astronomers have theorized, and if so, what the periodic cycle might be, although Townes suggests that if a cycle does exist, it is probably a few decades long.[30] Other possible explanations are photospheric protrusions due to convection or a star that is not spherical but rather asymmetric causing but the appearance of expansion and contraction as the star rotates on its axis.[62] Consequently, until a full cycle of data has been gathered, we will not know whether the 1993 figure of 56.0 mas represents a maximum extension of the star or its mean, or whether the 2008 figure of 47.0 in fact represents a minimum. It will probably take another 15 years or longer (2025) before we know with any certainty, meaning that the Jovian orbit of 5.5 AU will probably serve as the star’s “average” radius for some time.[63][64]

Once considered as having the largest angular diameter of any star in the sky after the Sun, in 1997 Betelgeuse lost that distinction when a group of astronomers measured R Doradus with a diameter of 57.0 ± 0.5 mas. Betelgeuse is now considered to be in third place, although R Doradus, being much closer to Earth at about 200 ly, has an actual diameter roughly one-third that of Betelgeuse.[65]

[edit] Properties

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram identifying supergiants like Betelgeuse that have moved off the main sequence.

Betelgeuse’s spectral class is listed as M2Iab in the SIMBAD astronomical database, signifying that it is a red Class M star.[2] The “ab” suffix is derived from the Yerkes spectral classification system, and indicates that it is an intermediate luminous supergiant, less bright than other supergiants like Deneb.[66] However, given some of the recent findings, this classification may be outdated, as there is evidence Betelgeuse is actually much more luminous than Deneb and other stars in its class.[32]

Assuming average radius of 5.5 AU and a distance of 197 pc, theoretical calculations would yield a luminosity figure in excess of 180,000 Suns (L) at maximum.[4][64] When the star contracts as it appears to have since 1993, its luminosity would diminish to about 130,000L. Either way, that amount of electromagnetic energy dwarfs Deneb’s output of about 50,000L.[note 4] But with most of the star’s radiant energy occurring in the infrared and huge amounts being absorbed by circumstellar matter, the human eye simply cannot perceive the star’s intrinsic brightness.

Given the many uncertainties surrounding Betelgeuse, no consensus has yet emerged regarding the star’s mass. Estimates range from 5 to 30 solar masses (M) with most investigators showing a preference for a relatively large mass ranging from 10 to 20M.[67][68] One model reports a mass at the lower end of the scale at 14M, although a mass ranging from 18 to 20 is more commonplace.[6][67]

Typical of red supergiants, Betelgeuse is a cool star with surface temperatures in the last decade reported between 3,500 to 3,600K.[8][10][68] It is also a slow rotator, with the most recent velocity recorded at 5 km/s.[10] Depending on its photospheric radius, it could take the star anywhere from 25 to 32 years to turn on its axis—extremely slow when compared with a fast rotator like Pleione in the Pleiades star cluster, which turns on its axis once every 11.8 hours.[69]

In 2002, astronomers using sophisticated computer simulations began to speculate that Betelgeuse might exhibit magnetic activity in its extended atmosphere, a factor where even moderately strong fields could have a meaningful influence over the star’s dust, wind and mass-loss properties.[70] A series of spectropolarimetric observations obtained in 2010 with the Bernard Lyot Telescope at Pic du Midi Observatory revealed the presence of a weak magnetic field at the surface of Betelgeuse, suggesting that the giant convective motions of supergiant stars are able to trigger the onset of a small-scale dynamo.[71]

[edit] Space motion

Orion OB1 Association

The kinematics of Betelgeuse are not easily explained. The age of a Class M supergiant with an initial mass of 20M is roughly 10 million years.[4][72] Given its current space motion, a projection back in time would take Betelgeuse around 290 parsecs farther from the galactic plane where there is no star formation region—an implausible scenario. Although the radial velocity and proper motion for the 25 Ori subassociation have yet to be measured, α Ori’s projected pathway across the heavens does not appear to intersect with it either. Also, formation close to the far younger Orion Nebula Cluster (ONC, also known as Ori OB1d) is doubtful. Very Long Baseline Array astrometry yields a distance to the ONC between 389 and 414 parsecs. Consequently, it is likely that Betelgeuse has not always had its current motion through space and has changed course at one time or another, possibly the result of a nearby stellar explosion.[4][73]

The most likely star-formation scenario for Betelgeuse is that it is a runaway star from the Orion OB1 Association. Originally a member of a high-mass multiple system within Ori OB1a, Betelgeuse was probably formed about 10–12 million years ago from the molecular clouds observed in Orion, but has evolved rapidly due to its unusually high mass.[4]

Like many of the young stars in Orion where masses greater than 10 solar can be found in abundance, Betelgeuse will use its fuel quickly and not live very long. On the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, Betelgeuse has moved off the main sequence and has swelled and cooled to become a red supergiant. Although young, Betelgeuse has probably exhausted the hydrogen in its core—unlike its OB cousins born about the same time—causing it to contract under the force of gravity into a hotter and denser state. As a result, it has begun to fuse helium into carbon and oxygen producing enough radiation to unfurl its outer envelopes of hydrogen and helium. Its extreme luminosity is being generated by a mass so large that the star will eventually fuse higher elements through neon, magnesium, sodium, and silicon all the way to iron, at which point it will probably collapse and explode as a supernova.[6][43]

[edit] Density

Sirius (Panel 4) is the brightest star in the night sky, but is tiny compared to Betelgeuse (Panel 5). Both Sirius and Betelgeuse traverse the sky the same time of year.

As an early M-type supergiant, Betelgeuse is one of the largest, most luminous and yet one of the most ethereal stars known. A radius of 5.5 AU is roughly 1,180 times the radius of the Sun—a sphere so huge that it could contain over 2 quadrillion Earths (2.15 × 1015) or more than 1.6 billion (1.65 × 109) Suns. That is the equivalent of Betelgeuse being a giant football coliseum like Wembley Stadium in London with the Earth a tiny pearl, 1 millimeter in diameter, orbiting a Sun the size of a mango.[note 5] Sirius, by contrast, with a radius of 1.71R, would be roughly the size of a soccer ball. Moreover, recent observations of Betelgeuse exhibiting a 15% contraction in angular diameter would equate to a shortening of the star’s radius from about 5.5 to 4.6 AU, assuming that the photosphere is a perfect sphere. A reduction of this magnitude would correspond to a diminution in photospheric volume of approximately 41% or 680 million Suns.[note 6]

Bowl volume of Wembley Stadium. The center circle (9.15 m radius) is a close analogy for the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, while the air in the stadium is actually far more dense than the star itself.

Not only is the photosphere enormous, but the star is surrounded by a vast and complex circumstellar environment where light could take over three years just to escape.[74] In the outer reaches of the photosphere, the density is extremely low. In volume, Betelgeuse exceeds the Sun by a factor of about 1.6 billion Suns. Yet the actual mass of the star is believed to be no more than 18–19M, with certain mass loss estimates projected at 1–2M since birth.[6] Consequently, the average density of this stellar mystery compared to the Sun is less than twelve parts-per-billion (1.119 × 10−8). If we compare such star matter to the density of ordinary air at sea level, the ratio is roughly 1.286 × 10−5, a density so ethereal, one would have to soar above the noctilucent clouds in the Earth’s mesosphere to experience it.[note 7] Such star matter is so tenuous, in fact, that Betelgeuse has often been called a “red-hot vacuum”.[14][15]

[edit] Circumstellar dynamics

In the late phase of stellar evolution, massive stars like Betelgeuse exhibit high rates of mass loss, possibly as much as 1M every 10,000 years, resulting in a complex circumstellar environment that is constantly in flux.[32] All stars exhibit mass loss. Rates vary from about 10−14 to 10−4 \begin{smallmatrix}M_{\odot} \end{smallmatrix} yr -1 depending on spectral type, luminosity class, rotation rate, companion proximity, and evolutionary stage.[75] Exactly how this mass loss occurs, however, has been a mystery confronting astronomers for decades. When Schwarzschild first proposed his theory of monster convection cells, he argued it was the likely cause in red supergiants. Prior attempts to explain mass loss in terms of solar wind theory had proven unsuccessful as they led to a contradiction with observations involving circumstellar shells.[25] Other theories that have been advanced include magnetic activity, global pulsations and shock structures as well as stellar rotation.[20]

Artist’s rendering from ESO showing Betelgeuse with a gigantic bubble boiling on its surface and a vast plume of gas being ejected to at least six photospheric radii or roughly the orbit of Neptune.

As a result of work done by Pierre Kervella and his team at the Paris observatory in 2009, astronomers may be close to solving this mystery. What Kervella noticed was a large plume of gas extending outward at least six times the stellar radius indicating that the star is not shedding matter evenly in all directions.[10][32] The plume’s presence, in fact, implies that the spherical symmetry of its photosphere, often observed in the infrared, is not preserved in its close environment. Asymmetries on the stellar disk had been reported many times at different wavelengths. However, due to the refined capabilities of the NACO adaptive optics on the VLT, these asymmetries have come into focus. The two mechanisms that could cause such asymmetrical mass loss, Kervella noted, were large-scale convection cells or polar mass loss, possibly due to rotation.[10] Probing deeper still with the AMBER instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer, Keiichi Ohnaka from the Max Planck Institute in Bonn observed that the gas in the supergiant’s extended atmosphere is vigorously moving up and down, creating bubbles as large as the supergiant itself, leading his team to conclude that such stellar upheaval is behind the massive plume ejection observed by Kervella.[32][76]

Evidence of circumstellar shells surrounding M supergiants was first proposed by Walter Adams and Elizabeth MacCormack in 1935 when they observed anomalies in the spectral signature of such stars and concluded that the likely cause was an expanding gaseous envelope.[31][77] The first indication of vastly extended envelopes occurred in 1955 with the work of Armin Deutsch who noticed when studying the Rasalgethi system that spectroscopic peculiarities were mysteriously occurring in the G star companion, α2 Her. This led him to conclude that the whole system had to be enveloped by a circumstellar shell composed of matter being ejected by the main star, M supergiant α1 Her, and extending to at least 170 stellar radii.[31][78] In the mid 1970s, Andrew Bernat undertook a detailed analysis of four circumstellar shells, Betelgeuse, Antares, Rasalgethi and Mu Cephei, concluding that red stars dominate mass return to the Galaxy.[31]

In addition to the photosphere, researchers have now identified six other components of Betelgeuse’s complex atmosphere. Extending outward, we find a compact molecular environment otherwise known as the MOLsphere, a gaseous envelope, a chromosphere, a dust environment and two outer shells (S1 and S2) composed of carbon monoxide (CO). There is also evidence of coronal plasma in the star’s extended atmosphere, a phenomenon that heretofore was not believed to exist in late stage stars off the main sequence.[67] Some of these elements are known to be asymmetric while others overlap.[60]

Exterior view of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile.

At about .45 stellar radii (~2−3 AU) above the photosphere, the closest membrane appears to be the molecular layer known as the MOLsphere. Studies show it to be composed of water-vapor and carbon monoxide with an effective temperature of about 1500 ± 500K.[60][79] Water-vapor had been originally detected in the supergiant’s spectrum back in the 1960s with the two Stratoscope projects but had been ignored for decades. Recent studies suggest that the MOLsphere may also contain SiO and Al2O3—molecules which could explain the formation of dust particles.

Interior view of one of the four 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes at ESO’s VLT.

Between two and seven stellar radii (~10−40 AU), astronomers have identified another region known as an asymmetric gaseous envelope composed of elemental abundances C, N and O.[60][80] The radio-telescope images taken in 1998 confirm that Betelgeuse has a dense atmosphere with a “remarkably complex structure”.[81] Observations show the atmosphere to be boiling with a temperature of 3,450 ± 850K—similar to the temperature recorded on the star’s surface but much lower than surrounding gas in the same region.[81][82] The VLA images also showed this lower-temperature gas progressively decreasing in temperature as it extends outward—the existence of which, although unexpected, turns out to be the most abundant constituent of Betelgeuse’s atmosphere. “This alters our basic understanding of red-supergiant star atmospheres”, explained Jeremy Lim, the team’s leader. “Instead of the star’s atmosphere expanding uniformly because of gas heated to very high temperatures near its surface, it now appears that several giant convection cells propel gas from the star’s surface into its atmosphere.”[81] This is the same region in which Kervella’s 2009 finding of a bright plume, possibly containing CN and extending at least six photospheric radii in the southwest direction of the star, is believed to exist.[60]

The chromosphere, as mentioned earlier, was resolved in 1996 at about 2.2 times the optical disk (~10 AU) at ultraviolet wavelengths and is reported to have a temperature no higher than 5,500K.[46][60] The image was taken with the Faint Object Camera on-board the Hubble Space Telescope and also revealed a bright area in the southwest quadrant of the disk. However in 2004 observations with the STIS, Hubble’s high-precision spectrometer, pointed to the existence of warm chromospheric plasma at least one arcsecond away from the star. At a distance of 197 pc, the size of the chromosphere could be 200 AU or seven times the Neptunian orbit.[83] The CfA team led by Alex Lobel concluded that the spatially resolved STIS spectra directly demonstrate the co-existence of warm chromospheric plasma with cool gas in Betelgeuse’s circumstellar dust envelope.[83]

The first attestation of a dust shell surrounding Betelgeuse was put forth by Sutton et al. when the team noted in 1977 that dust shells around mature stars often emit large amounts of radiation in excess of the photospheric contribution. Using heterodyne interferometry, the team concluded that α Ori emits the majority of its excess outside 12 stellar radii or roughly the distance of the Kuiper belt at 50 to 60 AU, depending on the assumed stellar radius.[60][84] Since then, there have been numerous studies done of this dust envelope at varying wavelengths yielding decidedly different results. More recent studies have estimated the inner radius of the dust shell anywhere from 0.5 to 1.0 arcseconds, hence 25 to 50 stellar radii or 100 to 200 AU.[85][86] What these studies point out is that the dust environment surrounding Betelgeuse is anything but static. In 1994, Danchi et al. reported that Betelgeuse undergoes sporadic dust production involving decades of activity followed by inactivity. A few years later, a group of astronomers led by Chris Skinner noticed significant changes in the dust shell’s morphology in just one year, suggesting that the shell is asymmetrically illuminated by a stellar radiation field strongly affected by the existence of photospheric hot spots.[85] The 1984 report of a giant asymmetric dust shell located 1 pc (206,265 AU) from the star has not been corroborated in recent studies, although another report published the same year said that three dust shells were found extending four light years from one side of the decaying star, suggesting that, like a snake, Betelgeuse sheds its outer layers as it journeys across the heavens.[74][87]

Although the exact size of the two outer CO shells remains elusive, preliminary estimates suggest that one shell extends from about 1.5 to 4.0 arcseconds with the other expanding as far as 7.0 arcseconds.[88] Using the Jovian orbit of 5.5 AU as the “average” radius for this gargantuan star, (~0.055″ diameter), the inner shell would extend from roughly 50 to 150 stellar radii (~300 to 800 AU) with the outer shell extending out as far as 250 stellar radii (~1400 AU). With the heliopause estimated at about 100 AU, the size of this outer shell is almost fourteen times the size of our Solar System.

[edit] Approaching supernova

The future fate of Betelgeuse depends on its mass—a critical factor which is not well understood.[68] Since most investigators concede a mass greater than 10M, the most likely scenario is that the supergiant will continue to burn and fuse elements until its core is iron, at which point Betelgeuse will explode as a type II supernova. During this event the core will collapse, leaving behind a neutron star remnant some 20 km in diameter.[16]

Celestia‘s computerized depiction of Orion as it might appear from Earth should Betelgeuse explode as a supernova.

Artist depiction of a Gamma-ray burst showing jets and supernova shell[89]

Betelgeuse is already old for its size class and is expected to explode relatively soon compared to its age.[32] Solving the riddle of mass-loss will be the key to knowing when a supernova might occur, an event expected anytime in the next million years, with some speculation it could even occur in the next millennium.[34][90][91] Supporting this hypothesis are a number of unusual features that have been observed in the interstellar medium of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, which suggest that there have been multiple supernova explosions in the recent past.[73] Betelgeuse’s suspected birthplace in the Orion OB1 Association is the probable location for such supernovae. Since the oldest subgroup in the association has an approximate age of 12 million years, the more massive stars likely had sufficient time to evolve to this stage. Also, because runaway stars are believed to be caused by supernova explosions, there is strong evidence that OB stars μ Columbae, AE Aurigae and 53 Arietis all originated with such an explosion in Ori OB1 2.2, 2.7 and 4.9 million years ago.[73]

At its current distance from Earth, such a supernova explosion would be the brightest recorded, outshining the Moon in the night sky and becoming easily visible in broad daylight.[32] Professor J. Craig Wheeler of The University of Texas at Austin predicts the supernova will emit 1053 ergs of neutrinos, which will pass through the star’s hydrogen envelope in around an hour, then reach the solar system several centuries later. Since its rotational axis is not pointed toward the Earth, Betelgeuse’s supernova is unlikely to send a gamma ray burst in the direction of Earth large enough to damage ecosystems.[91] The flash of ultraviolet radiation from the explosion will likely be weaker than the ultraviolet output of the Sun. The supernova could brighten to an apparent magnitude of −12 over a two-week period, then remain at that intensity for 2 to 3 months before rapidly dimming. The year following the explosion, radioactive decay of cobalt to iron will dominate emission from the supernova remnant, and the resulting gamma rays will be blocked by the expanding envelope of hydrogen. If the neutron star remnant becomes a pulsar, then it could produce gamma rays for thousands of years.[92]

[edit] Star system

In 1985, Margarita Karovska, in conjunction with other astrophysicists at the CfA, announced the discovery of two close companions orbiting Betelgeuse. Analysis of polarization data from 1968 through 1983 indicated a close companion with a periodic orbit of about 2.1 years. The team realized that the observed polarization could be caused by a systemic asymmetry created by the close companion orbiting the supergiant inside its extended dust envelope. Using speckle interferometry, the team concluded that the closer of the two companions was located at 0.06 ± 0.01 (~9 AU) from the main star with a position angle (PA) of 273 degrees, an orbit that would potentially place it within the star’s chromosphere. The more distant companion was estimated at 0.51 ± 0.01 (~77 AU) with a PA of 278 degrees. The magnitude differences with respect to the primary, measured at 656.3 () and 656.8 nm (red continuum), were 3.4 and 3.0 for the close component and 4.6 and 4.3 for the distant component.[93][94]

Illustration of an aperture mask as used by Buscher et al. in their discovery of hotspots—a finding which seems to have displaced the quest for stellar companions.

Images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope showing that asymmetrical envelopes can trigger the formation of tightly knit binary star systems.[95]

In the years that followed, astronomers conducted a number of studies in the hope of obtaining additional confirmation. In 1987, Andrea Dupree, one of Karovska’s colleagues at the CfA, observed: “Periastron of the recently discovered close optical companion to Alpha Ori is predicted to be 1986.7; detection of atmospheric disturbances similar to those found subsequent to the last periastron (~ 1984.6) would give strong support to the presence of a companion.”[96] However, in the years that followed no such confirmation was ever published. Rather, in 1990, David F. Buscher, John E. Baldwin and a team of collaborators from the Cavendish Astrophysics Group made a number of high-resolution images of the supergiant at wavelengths of 633, 700, and 710 nm using the nonredundant masking method. At all these wavelengths, they remarked, there was unambiguous evidence for an asymmetric feature on the surface of the star, which contributed 10−15 percent of the star’s total observed flux. Their conclusion was that such a phenomenon could be caused by a close companion passing in front of the stellar disk, differential photospheric brightening due to the effects of stellar rotation or the more likely scenario of “large-scale convection in the stellar atmosphere” as suggested by Schwarzschild.[21]

The Cavendish colleagues published another paper in 1992, this time under the helm of Richard. W. Wilson, noting that the brightness features on the surface of Betelgeuse appear to be “too bright to be associated with a passage of the suggested companions in front of the red giant.” They also noticed that these features were fainter at 710 nanometers compared to 700 by a factor of 1.8, indicating that such features would have to reside within the molecular atmosphere of the star.[97]

That same year, Karovska published a new paper reconfirming her team’s exegesis, but also noting that there was a meaningful correlation between the calculated position angles of the orbiting companion and the reported asymmetries, suggesting a possible connection between the two. She observed that any such correlation could be caused one of three factors: a companion star, tidal distortion of the supergiant’s atmosphere, or by a photospheric bright spot. She concludes: “To determine the nature of the companion (which presently remains a puzzle), it is crucial to obtain further speckle observations using large aperture telescopes, coordinated with other ground-based observations and the observations from space.”[98]

Since then, researchers have turned their attention to analyzing the intricate dynamics of the star’s extended atmosphere and little else has been published on the possibility of orbiting companions, although as Xavier Haubois and his team reiterate in 2009, the possibility of a close companion contributing to the overall flux has never been fully ruled out.[60] Dommanget’s double star catalog (CCDM) lists at least four adjacent stars, all within three arcminutes of this stellar giant, yet aside from apparent magnitudes and position angles, little else is known.[99] As the decade unfolds and new technologies are brought to unraveling the star’s enigmatic past, we will likely see conclusive evidence, one way or another, of any potential star system. Given the planned capabilities of the upcoming Gaia mission, a confirmation could occur any time after the mission’s scheduled launch in December 2012.[100]

[edit] Name

[edit] Spelling

Betelgeuse has been known variously as Betelgeux,[1] and Beteigeuze[101] in German (according to Bode[102][103]). Betelgeux and Betelgeuze were used until the early 20th century, when the spelling Betelgeuse became universal.[104]

Image of Islamic Celestial Globe, circa 1630 AD, showing “al-Jauzā” (Betelgeuse) and belt of Orion in the foreground. The brass globe served both as a map of the heavens and a precision tool for making astronomical calculations.

[edit] Pronunciation

There is no consensus for the correct pronunciation of the name,[105] and pronunciations for the star are as varied as its spellings:

[edit] Etymology

The last part of the name, “-elgeuse”, comes from the Arabic الجوزاء al-Jauzā’, a historical Arabic name of the constellation Orion, a feminine name in old Arabian legend, and of uncertain meaning. Because جوز j-w-z, the root of jauzā’, means “middle”, al-Jauzā’ roughly means “the Central One”. Later, al-Jauzā’ was also designated as the scientific Arabic name for Orion and for Gemini. The current Arabic name for Orion is الجبار al-Jabbār (“the Giant”), although the use of الجوزاء al-Jauzā’ in the name of the star has continued.[107]

There is some uncertainty surrounding the first element of the name, rendered as “Bet-“.

In his 1863 work Star-Names and Their Meanings, American amateur naturalist Richard Hinckley Allen stated the derivation was from the ابط الجوزاء Ibṭ al-Jauzah, which he claimed degenerated into a number of forms including Bed Elgueze, Beit Algueze, Bet El-gueze, Beteigeuze and more, to the (then) current forms Betelgeuse, Betelguese, Betelgueze and Betelgeux. The star was named Beldengeuze in the Alfonsine Tables, and Italian Jesuit priest and astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli had called it Bectelgeuze or Bedalgeuze.[12]

Paul Kunitzsch, Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Munich, refuted Allen’s derivation and instead proposed that the full name is a corruption of the Arabic يد الجوزاء Yad al-Jauzā’ meaning “the Hand of al-Jauzā’, i.e., Orion.[108] European mistransliteration into medieval Latin led to the first character y (, with two dots underneath) being misread as a b (, with only one dot underneath). During the Renaissance, the star’s name was written as بيت الجوزاء Bait al-Jauzā’ (“house of Orion”) or بط الجوزاء Baţ al-Jauzā’, incorrectly thought to mean “armpit of Orion” (a true translation of “armpit” would be ابط, transliterated as Ibţ). This led to the modern rendering as Betelgeuse.[107] Other writers have since accepted Kunitzsch’s explanation.[6] The 17th century English translator Edmund Chilmead gave it the name Ied Algeuze (“Orion’s Hand”), from Christmannus.[12]

Other Arabic names recorded include Al Yad al Yamnā (“the Right Hand”), Al Dhira (“the Arm”), and Al Mankib (“the Shoulder”), all appended to “of the giant”,[12] as منكب الجوزاء Mankib al Jauzā’. In Persian, however, the name is اِبطالجوزا, derived from the Arabic ابط الجوزاء Ibţ al-Jauzā’, “armpit of Orion”.

Betelgeuse was the fourth nakshatra Ardra “Moist” in Hindi, and associated with the god Rudra. Allen linked Orion’s association with stormy weather to that of this deity of storms.[12] Bahu was its Sanskrit name, as part of a Hindu understanding of the constellation as a running antelope or stag.[12] Other terms included the Persian Bašn “the Arm” via Brown, and Coptic Klaria “an Armlet”.[12]

In traditional Chinese astronomy, Betelgeuse was known as 参宿四 (Shēnxiùsì, the Fourth (Star of the constellation) of Three (Stars)) as the constellation of 参宿 was at first a name only for the three stars in the girdle of Orion. Four stars were later added to this constellation, but the earlier name stuck.[citation needed] In Japan, this star was called Heike-boshi (suggested by the red butterfly flag of the Heike clan), (平家星),[109][110] “the Star of the Heike clan” or Kin-waki, (金脇), “the Gold (Star) beside (Mitsu-boshi).”

[edit] In popular culture

The star’s unusual name inspired the 1988 film Beetlejuice, and script writer Michael McDowell was impressed at how many people made the connection. He added they had received a suggestion the sequel be named Sanduleak-69 202 after the former star of SN 1987A.[104] In August Derleth‘s short story “The Dweller in the Darkness” set in H. P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos, Betelgeuse is the home of the ‘benign’ Elder Gods.[111] There has been much debate over the identity of the red star Borgil mentioned in Lord of the Rings, with Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and even the planet Mars touted as candidates. Professor Kristine Larsen has concluded the evidence points to it being Aldebaran as it precedes Menelvagor (Orion).[112] Astronomy writer Robert Burnham, Jr. proposed the term padparadaschah which denotes a rare orange sapphire in India, for the star.[104] In popular science fiction series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, “Ford Prefect” was from “a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.”[111]

In the 1963 novel “Planet of the Apes” by Pierre Boulle, the eponymous planet orbits Betelgeuse. However, this was not true of 1968 film version in which the planet of the apes turns out to be Earth in the far future.

There have been two American navy ships named after the star, both World War II vessels, the USS Betelgeuse (AKA-11) launched in 1939 and USS Betelgeuse (AK-260) launched in 1944.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b The following table provides a non-exhaustive list of angular measurements conducted since 1920. Also included is a column providing a current range of radii for each study based on α Ori’s most recent distance estimate (Harper et al) of 197±45 pc:
    Article Year1 Telescope # Spectrum λ (μm) (mas)2 Radii3 @
    197±45 pc
    Michelson 1920 Mt-Wilson 1 Visible 0.575 47.0 ± 4.7 3.2 – 6.3 AU Limb darkened +17% = 55.0
    Bonneau 1972 Palomar 8 Visible 0.422-0.719 52.0 – 69.0 3.6 – 9.2 AU Strong correlation of with λ
    Balega 1978 ESO 3 Visible 0.405-0.715 45.0 – 67.0 3.1 – 8.6 AU No correlation of with λ
    1979 SAO 4 Visible 0.575-0.773 50.0 – 62.0 3.5 – 8.0 AU
    Buscher 1989 WHT 4 Visible 0.633-0.710 54.0 – 61.0 4.0 – 7.9 AU Discovered asymmetries/hotspots
    Wilson 1991 WHT 4 Visible 0.546-0.710 49.0 – 57.0 3.5 – 7.1 AU Confirmation of hotspots
    Tuthill 1993 WHT 8 Visible 0.633-0.710 43.5 – 54.2 3.2 – 7.0 AU Study of hotspots on 3 stars
    1992 WHT 1 NIR 0.902 42.6 ± 0:03 3.0 – 5.6 AU
    Weiner 1999 ISI 2 MIR (N Band) 11.150 54.7 ± 0.3 4.1 – 6.7 AU Limb darkened = 55.2 ± 0.5
    Perrin 1997 IOTA 7 NIR (K Band) 2.200 43.33 ± 0.04 3.3 – 5.2 AU K&L Band,11.5μm data contrast
    Haubois 2005 IOTA 6 NIR (H Band) 1.650 44.28 ± 0.15 3.4 – 5.4 AU Rosseland diameter 45.03 ± 0.12
    Hernandez 2006 VLTI 2 NIR (K Band) 2.099-2.198 42:57 ± 0:02 3.2 – 5.2 AU High precision AMBER results.
    Ohnaka 2008 VLTI 3 NIR (K Band) 2.280-2.310 43.19 ± 0.03 3.3 – 5.2 AU Limb darkened 43.56 ± 0.06
    Townes 1993 ISI 17 MIR (N Band) 11.150 56.00 ± 1.00 4.2 – 6.8 AU Systematic study involving 17 measurements at the same wavelength from 1993-2009
    2008 ISI MIR (N Band) 11.150 47.00 ± 2.00 3.6 – 5.7 AU
    2009 ISI MIR (N Band) 11.150 48.00 ± 1.00 3.6 – 5.8 AU
    Harper 2004 VLA Also noteworthy, Harper et al in the conclusion of their paper make the following remark: “In a sense, the derived distance of 200 pc is a balance between the 131 pc (425 ly) Hipparcos distance and the radio which tends towards 250 pc (815 ly)”—hence establishing ± 815 ly as the outside distance for the star.

    1The final year of observations, unless otherwise noted. 2Uniform disk measurement, unless otherwise noted. 3Radii calculations use the same methodology as outlined in Note #2 below Limb darkened measurement.

  2. ^ To determine the average radius of Betelgeuse in terms of solar units, the calculations begin with the formula for angular diameter as follows:
     {\delta} = \frac{d_B}{D_B}

    where δ equals the angular diameter of Betelgeuse in arcseconds, dB the star’s diameter in AU, and DB the Distance from Earth in parsecs. If we know the angular diameter and the Distance, then we can solve for dB as follows:

    d_B = \delta \cdot D_B = {0.0552} \cdot 197.0 = 10.874 AU.

    To obtain Betelgeuse’s radius:

    R_B = {\left ( {\frac {d_B}{2}} \right )} = {\left ( {\frac {10.874}{2}} \right )} = 5.437 AU.

    However, given that:

    1. There are significant error factors in the two variables that make up this formula, the angular diameter (δ) and distance (DB),
    2. The error factors yield a radius range for Betelgeuse between 4.2 to 6.9 AU, and
    3. The hypothesis that the star’s radius continually expands and contracts,

    the astronomical community has selected 5.5AU—the orbit of Jupiter—as a conceptually elegant solution.

    To convert 5.5 AU into Solar units, the math is straightforward. Since 1 AU = 149,597,871 km and the mean diameter of the Sun = 1,392,000 km (hence a mean radius of 696,000 km), the calculation is as follows:

    d_B = {\left ( 5.5 AU \right )} {\left ( {\frac {149,597,871 km}{696,000 km}} \right )} = 1,180 R_{\odot} (rounded).
  3. ^ Betelgeuse’s reported radius of 56.0 mas in 1993 equates to 5.516 AU (1,185 \begin{smallmatrix}R_{\odot} \end{smallmatrix}), assuming a distance of 197.0 pc. The reported angular diameter of 47.0 mas from 2008 would equate to a radius of 4.630 AU (995 \begin{smallmatrix}R_{\odot} \end{smallmatrix}), hence a shrikange of 0.887 AU, a little more than the orbit of Venus, and just under the orbit of the Earth. To compute the average speed of contraction, the only missing variable is time. The 1993 measurement was taken on October 30th; the 2008 figure, on October 29th—hence a time frame of 5,478 days. Therefore:0.887 AU × 149,597,871 km ÷ 5,478 days ÷ 24 hours ≈ 1,008 km/h.

    It should also be noted that any speed calculation is highly dependent on the estimated distance (parallax) to Betelgeuse. If we assume the Hipparcos distance to Betelgeuse (131 pc or 425 ly) in lieu of the Harper estimate, the speed drops to 671 km/h.
  4. ^ To understand the luminosity calculations below, the first step is to clearly delineate between the two forms of luminosity: apparent luminosity (counting visible light only) and bolometric luminosity (total radiant energy), sometime’s referred to as intrinsic luminosity. The formula for bolometric luminosity is as follows:
    \frac{L_{\rm B}}{L_{\odot}} = {\left ( \frac{R_{\rm B}}{R_{\odot}} \right )}^2 {\left ( \frac{T_{\rm B}}{T_{\odot}} \right )}^4 where… B = Betelgeuse, L = Luminosity, R = Radius and T = Temperature.


    \frac{L_{\rm B}}{L_{\odot}} = {\left ( {\frac{1,180}{1}} \right )}^2 {\left ( {\frac{3,500}{5,778}} \right )}^4 = 187,468 L_{\odot}


    \frac{L_{\rm B}}{L_{\odot}} = {\left ( {\frac{995}{1}} \right )}^2 {\left ( {\frac{3,500}{5,778}} \right )}^4 = 133,293 L_{\odot}

    Note: Luminosity calculations are highly dependent on angular diameter and distance variables . A range of angular diameters from 42.57 mas (Hernandez) to 61.0 mas (Buscher) combined with a distance range of 197pc ± 45pc (Harper) yields an approximate range of luminosities from 65,000—340,000{L_{\odot}}.

  5. ^ The analogy is based on the computation of certain ratios — specifically the diameter, radius and volume of the 3 celestial bodies in question, Betelgeuse, the Sun and Earth. Once these ratios are derived, the relative size of each as they relate to Wembley Stadium can be easily determined. The calculations begin with the formula for angular diameter as follows:
    • Betelgeuse diameter ≈ 0.0552 arcseconds × 197.0 pc ≈ 11.000 AU (rounded up) × 149,597,871 km ≈ 1.646 ×109 km,
    • Betelgeuse radius ≈ 11.000 AU ÷ 2 ≈ 5.500 AU × 149,597,871 km ≈ 8.230 ×108 km ≈ 823,000,000 km,
    • Betelgeuse volume ≈ (4÷3×π) × 823,000,0003 ≈ 2.335 × 1027 km3.


    • Solar radius ≈ 696,000 km. Volume ≈ 1.412×1018 km3,
    • Earth radius ≈ 6,371.0 km. Volume ≈ 1.083×1012 km3.
    • Wembley Bowl Volume ≈ 1,139,100 m3. Spherical radius ≈ (1,139,100m3 ÷ (4/3*π))1/3 ≈ 64.787 m or 64,787 mm.


    • Betelgeuse ≈ (2.335 × 1027) ÷ (1.412×1018) ≈ 1.654 × 109 Suns,
    • Betelgeuse ≈ (2.335 × 1027) ÷ (1.083×1012) ≈ 2.156 × 1015 Earths.
    • Solar volume relative to Wembley ≈ 1,139,100 m3 ÷ (1.654 × 109) × 109{i.e. to convert to mm3} ≈ 689,000 mm3 (rounded up)
    • Solar diameter relative to Wembley ≈ (689,000 mm3 ÷ (4/3*π))1/3 ≈ 55.61845 × 2 ≈ 110 mm or 4.3 inches
    • Earth volume relative to Wembley ≈ 1,139,100 m3 ÷ (2.156 × 1015) × 109{i.e. to convert to mm3} ≈ 0.528 mm3
    • Earth diameter relative to Wembley ≈ (0.528 mm3 ÷ (4/3*π))1/3 ≈ 0.501 × 2 ≈ 1.002 mm or 0.04 inches
    • Earth’s orbital radius (1 AU) relative to Wembley ≈ 1 AU ÷ 5.5 AU × 64.787 meters = 11.8 m


    • If the immense space of Wembley Stadium were Betelgeuse, the Earth would be a tiny pearl, 1.0 mm in diameter, orbiting a Sun, 11.0 cm/4.3 inches in diameter (i.e. the size of an average mango or grapefruit), with an orbital distance of about 11.8 meters.
  6. ^ As pointed out in the Angular anomalies section, the observed contraction could be due to a shrinking of the star’s radius or by other phenomena. Assuming the photosphere is spherical, calculating a reduction in volume begins with the formula for angular diameter as follows: Calculations for 1993 values:
    • Betelgeuse radius ≈ 0.056 arcseconds × 197.0 pc ≈ 11.032 AU ÷ 2 ≈ 5.516 AU × 149,597,871 km ≈ 825,000,000 km,
    • Betelgeuse volume ≈ (4÷3×π) × 825,000,0003 ≈ 2.352 × 1027 km3.

    Calculations for 2008 values:

    • Betelgeuse radius ≈ 0.047 arcseconds × 197.0 pc ≈ 9.260 AU ÷ 2 ≈ 4.630 AU × 149,597,871 km ≈ 692,500,000 km,
    • Betelgeuse volume ≈ (4÷3×π) × 692,500,0003 ≈ 1.391 × 1027 km3.


    • Betelgeuse change in volume ≈ 2.352 × 1027 km3 – 1.391 × 1027 km3 ≈ –9.610E × 1026 km3
    • Betelgeuse percent change in volume ≈ –9.610E × 1026 km3 ÷ 2.352 × 1027 km3 ≈ –40.86%
    • Betelgeuse volume change as a function of Solar volume ≈ –9.610E × 1026 ÷ 1.412×1018 km3 ≈ –681,000,000 Suns.
  7. ^ To compute these density ratios, the first step is to calculate the mass and volume of each component from which density calculations can be made. Once we have the density of the Sun, Betelgeuse, and the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s but a matter of simple division to compute the appropriate ratios. Therefore: Calculations for the Sun:
    • Solar mass ≈ 1.9891×1030 kg
    • Solar volume ≈ 1.412×1018 km3.
    • Solar density ≈ 1.9891×1030 ÷ (1.412×1018 × 109) ≈ 1.409×103 kg/m3.

    Calculations for Betelgeuse:

    • Betelgeuse mass ≈ 18.5 x Solar × 1.9891×1030 ≈ 3.680 ×1031 kg
    • Betelgeuse volume ≈ 2.335 × 1027 km3 (from previous note)
    • Betelgeuse density ≈ 3.680 ×1031 kg ÷ 2.335 × 1027 km3 × 109 ≈ 1.576 ×10−5 kg/m3.

    Calculations for the Earth’s atmosphere:

    • Atmospheric Mass ≈ 5.148 × 1018 kg
    • Atmospheric Volume ≈ 4.200 × 1009 km3.
    • Atmospheric Density ≈ 5.148 × 1018 kg ÷ 4.200 × 1009 km3 × 109 ≈ 1.226 kg/m3.


    • Betelgeuse/Sun ≈ 1.576 × 10−5 kg/m3 ÷ 1.409 × 103 kg/m3 ≈ 1.119 × 10−8 kg/m3
    • Betelgeuse/Earth’s Atmosphere = 1.576 × 10−5 kg/m3 ÷ 1.226 × 100 kg/m3 ≈ 1.286 × 10−5 kg/m3 OR 1.286 × 10−8 g/cm3


    • Betelgeuse’s average density relative to Earth’s Atmosphere is graphically represented in the NRLMSISE-00 standard atmosphere model. A density of 1.286 × 10−8 g/cm3, is roughly equivalent to the Earth’s atmospheric density found at about 90 kilometers above sea level. Noctilucent clouds are found between 76 to 85 km above sea level.

[edit] References

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[edit] External links

  1. Orion: Head to Toe The molecular clouds which gave birth to Betelgeuse.
  2. Mars and Orion Over Monument Valley Stunning skyscape showing the relative brightness of Betelgeuse and Rigel.
  3. Frosted Leaf Orion Orion, the hunter, in its mythological pursuit of the Pleiades over Japan.
  4. The Spotty Surface of Betelgeuse A reconstructed image showing two hotspots, possibly convection cells.
  5. Simulated Supergiant Star Freytag’s “Star in a Box” illustrating the nature of Betelgeuse’s “monster granules”.
  6. Why Stars Twinkle Image of Betelgeuse showing the effect of atmospheric twinkling in a microscope.
  7. Canaries Sky The glowing nebulas surrounding Betelgeuse.

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Red giant star Betelgeuse is mysteriously shrinking

Published: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 – 19:56 in Astronomy & Space

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, the bright reddish star in the constellation Orion, has steadily shrunk over the past 15 years, according to University of California, Berkeley, researchers. Long-term monitoring by UC Berkeley’s Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) on the top of Mt. Wilson in Southern California shows that Betelgeuse (bet’ el juz), which is so big that in our solar system it would reach to the orbit of Jupiter, has shrunk in diameter by more than 15 percent since 1993.

Since Betelgeuse’s radius is about five astronomical units, or five times the radius of Earth’s orbit, that means the star’s radius has shrunk by a distance equal to the orbit of Venus.

“To see this change is very striking,” said Charles Townes, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics who won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the laser and the maser, a microwave laser. “We will be watching it carefully over the next few years to see if it will keep contracting or will go back up in size.”

Townes and his colleague, Edward Wishnow, a research physicist at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, will discuss their findings at a 12:40 p.m. PDT press conference on Tuesday, June 9, during the Pasadena meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). The results were published June 1 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Despite Betelgeuse’s diminished size, Wishnow pointed out that its visible brightness, or magnitude, which is monitored regularly by members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, has shown no significant dimming over the past 15 years.

The ISI has been focusing on Betelgeuse for more than 15 years in an attempt to learn more about these giant massive stars and to discern features on the star’s surface, Wishnow said. He speculated that the measurements may be affected by giant convection cells on the star’s surface that are like convection granules on the sun, but so large that they bulge out of the surface. Townes and former graduate student Ken Tatebe observed a bright spot on the surface of Betelgeuse in recent years, although at the moment, the star appears spherically symmetrical.

“But we do not know why the star is shrinking,” Wishnow said. “Considering all that we know about galaxies and the distant universe, there are still lots of things we don’t know about stars, including what happens as red giants near the ends of their lives.”

Betelgeuse was the first star ever to have its size measured, and even today is one of only a handful of stars that appears through the Hubble Space Telescope as a disk rather than a point of light. In1921, Francis G. Pease and Albert Michelson used optical interferometry to estimate its diameter was equivalent to the orbit of Mars. Last year, new measurements of the distance to Betelgeuse raised it from 430 light years to 640, which increased the star’s diameter from about 3.7 to about 5.5 AU.

“Since the 1921 measurement, its size has been re-measured by many different interferometer systems over a range of wavelengths where the diameter measured varies by about 30 percent,” Wishnow said. “At a given wavelength, however, the star has not varied in size much beyond the measurement uncertainties.”

The measurements cannot be compared anyway, because the star’s size depends on the wavelength of light used to measure it, Townes said. This is because the tenuous gas in the outer regions of the star emits light as well as absorbs it, which makes it difficult to determine the edge of the star.

The ISI that Townes and his colleagues first built in the early 1990s sidesteps these confounding emission and absorption lines by observing in the mid-infrared with a narrow bandwidth that can be tuned between spectral lines. The ISI consists of three 5.4-foot (1.65-meter) diameter mirrors separated by distances that vary from 12 to 230 feet (4-70 meters), said Townes. Using a laser as a common frequency standard, the ISI interferometer combines signals from telescope pairs in order to determine path length differences between light that originates at the star’s center and light that originates at the star’s edge. The technique of stellar interferometry is highlighted in the June 2009 issue of Physics Today magazine.

“We observe around 11 microns, the mid-infrared, where this long wavelength penetrates the dust and the narrow bandwidth avoids any spectral lines, and so we see the star relatively undistorted,” said Townes. “We have also had the good fortune to have an instrument that has operated in a very similar manner for some 15 years, providing a long and consistent series of measurements that no one else has. The first measurements showed a size quite close to Michelson’s result, but over 15 years, it has decreased in size about 15 percent, changing smoothly, but faster as the years progressed.”

Townes, who turns 94 in July, plans to continue monitoring Betelgeuse in hopes of finding a pattern in the changing diameter, and to improve the ISI’s capabilities by adding a spectrometer to the interferometer.

“Whenever you look at things with more precision, you are going to find some surprises and uncover very fundamental and important new things,” he said.


Apocalypse Soon: Supernova Betelgeuse is Coming

Its coming and it may reach Earth before 2012. In fact the gamma rays from the Orion star Betelgeuse, when it goes ballistic [Supernova] may hit us any day!

Many people are predicting the end of the Earth when the second brightest star of the Orion Constellation goes Nova. The Internet is being flooded with articles concerning the event is part of the Mayan Calendar 2012 predictions and the end of the world. But what are the facts about this very unusual event located approximately 600 – 800 million light years away from Mother Earth? (The Astronomical Journal –April 2008)

It is also interesting to note that the name of this red star is Betelgeuse, is associated with the “Devil” and evil machinations. Yet, the name Betelgeuse is a corruption of the Arabic word “yad al jauza,” which means the “hand of al-jauza.”. The word “al-jauza” is an ancient Arabic derivative which refers to “Central One,” or a mysterious woman.

The history of the bright star name Betelgeuse is a good example of how scholarly errors can slip into modern spoken word. Very early in pre-Islamic Arabia astronomers, called the star yad al-jawzā’, “hand of the jawzā’.” The jawzā’ was their name for the constellation Gemini. Greek astronomy blended with Arabian astronomy, the word was given to the bright star in the constellation Orion. Centuries later, scribes writing in Medieval Latin rendered the word misread the y as a b, which became the Medieval Latin form Bedalgeuze. During the Renaissance era, another set of scholars interpreted the first syllable bed– as being derived from a putative Arabic word *bāṭ meaning “armpit.” This word did not exist; it would correctly have been ibṭ. Nonetheless, the error stuck, and the new etymological spelling produced Betelgeuse, that melded into French as Bételgeuse, and finally in Late Old English as Betelgeuse.

But here are the scientific facts (theories and conjectures based on reason):

  1. One day Betelgeuse will appear as a giant explosion in the sky, which may be 4 times the size of a full moon.
  2. Most scientists believe the star is far enough away from Earth that the explosion blast and various particle rays emitted will not affect us drastically (if at all).
  3. This star is a huge mass of hydrogen gas that is (or did) going through a fusion process that changes the matter into heavier elements.
  4. It is one of the largest stars known in the universe to human astronomy.
  5. On June 9th, 2009 it was presented to The American Astronomical Society that Betelgeuse was shrinking. Calculations from 1993 to the present show a 15% decrease in the stars diameter.
  6. It is a pulsating star, whose brightness changes with the density of its atmosphere: 0.2 – 1.2 brightness magnitude, which makes it one of the 10 brightest stars in our sky.
  7. Betelgeuse is surrounded by many layers of dust and gas that it has already blown off through a very strong stellar wind and surround the star in a ring of solar dust.
  8. Betelgeuse is projected by science to be only 6 – 10 million years old.
  9. Science says the star had a core made of hydrogen and thermonuclear fusion has already run out at its core, thus gravity has contracted the core into a hotter and denser state. This process fuses helium into carbon and oxygen which produce enough radiation to swell out its outer layers of hydrogen and helium.
  10. The red star is relatively rich in nitrogen compared to a less evolved star like our Sun (Lambert 1984).
  11. In 1995 astronomers found an enormous bright area more than 2,000 °K, hotter than the surrounding surface of the star (Gilliland & Dupree, 1996).
  12. Betelgeuse’s diameter is roughly 500 times that of the Sun.
  13. If and when it turns into a supernova the threat to Earth would be from the blast waves. Is Betelgeuse one of the “smoking stars” to which Nezahualcoyotl referred in his 15th century Aztec prophecy? It probably will not cause any direct physical destruction, due to the huge distance between Betelgeuse and the Earth. But then again.


Facts about the Star Betelgeuse

A Red Giant in Orion Is Surprisingly Shrinking

Jun 19, 2009 Kelly Whitt

Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis, is a red supergiant star that could undergo a supernova in the not-too-distant future.

Betelgeuse, pronounced bet-el-jooz (not Beetlejuice), is a red supergiant star easily found in the shoulder of Orion. Betelgeuse’s giant size makes it one of the only stars visible through Hubble as more than a point of light.

Facts About Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse is one of the largest stars known. If Betelgeuse was placed in the position of the sun in Earth’s solar system, it would extend out to the orbit of Jupiter. Betelgeuse lies about 640 light-years away in the constellation Orion the Hunter. Best viewed in winter, Betelgeuse is the bright upper left star in the form of Orion, marking his right shoulder.

Measurements of Betelgeuse have been quite difficult, because the star has a strong wind that is ejecting large quantities of dust, making it hard to locate the actual surface. UC Berkeley’s Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) has helped nail down these measurements.

Betelgeuse is a variable star, and although it is given the alpha designation, the star in the lower right portion of Orion, known as Rigel, is usually brighter. In general, the magnitude of Betelgeuse is 0.45. Rigel is 0.18.

Betelgeuse is approximately 8.5 million years old, much younger than the sun. (The sun is about 4.6 billion years old.) But larger stars live shorter lives, and Betelgeuse could go supernova at any time. Betelgeuse shines 135,000 times brighter than the sun. When it explodes, that brightness will increase exponentially, allowing the blast to be seen in daylight as it shines as brightly as a crescent moon.

Betelgeuse’s Surprise is It’s Shrinking

Studies by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that Betelgeuse has shrunk steadily over the past 15 years. The circumference of Betelgeuse has diminished by 15 percent since 1993, which would be about equal to the distance of Venus’s orbit.

“To see this change is very striking,” said Charles Townes, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics who won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the laser and the maser, a microwave laser. “We will be watching it carefully over the next few years to see if it will keep contracting or will go back up in size.”

Despite the change in Betelgeuse’s size, the star has not dimmed over this same period of time.

Edward Wishnow, a research physicist at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, is also involved in the studies. “We do not know why the star is shrinking,” Wishnow says. “Considering all that we know about galaxies and the distant universe, there are still lots of things we don’t know about stars, including what happens as red giants near the ends of their lives.”

Townes explains the benefits of the ISI observations. “We observe around 11 microns, the mid-infrared, where this long wavelength penetrates the dust and the narrow bandwidth avoids any spectral lines, and so we see the star relatively undistorted,” said Townes. “We have also had the good fortune to have an instrument that has operated in a very similar manner for some 15 years, providing a long and consistent series of measurements that no one else has. The first measurements showed a size quite close to [original 1921 measurements], but over 15 years, it has decreased in size about 15 percent, changing smoothly, but faster as the years progressed.”

What will Betelgeuse do next? Astronomers must wait and watch for that answer.

Source: UC Berkeley

Copyright Kelly Whitt. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.


Is Betelgeuse about to blow?

I was going to wait to write about this, but I’m getting a lot of emails about it, so I’ll say something now, and followup when I get more information.

The story:

BABloggee Alereon (and many others) sent me to an interesting site: Life After the Oil Crash Forum — a forum that apparently has a lot of doomsday-type scuttlebutt posted to it.

An anonymous poster there says he has heard that the star Betelgeuse is about to go supernova, maybe as soon as a few weeks:

I was talking to my son last week (he works on Mauna Kea), and he mentioned some new observations (that will no doubt get published eventually) of “Beetlejuice”; it’s no longer round. This is a huge star, and when it goes, it will be at least as bright as that 1054 supernova…except that this one is 520 light years away, not 6,300 […]

When it collapses, it will be at least as bright as the full moon, and maybe as bright as the sun. For six weeks. So the really lucky folks (for whom Betelgeuse is only visible at night) will get 24 hour days, everybody else will get at least some time with two suns in the sky. The extra hour of light from daylight savings time won’t burn the crops, but this might. Probably, all we’ll get is visible light (not gamma rays or X-rays), so it shouldn’t be an ELE. It’s sure gonna freak everyone out, though…..

Then it will form a black hole, but we’re too far away for that to matter.

The buzz is that this is weeks/months away, not the “any time in the next thousand years” that’s in all the books.

The basic takeaway:

OK, folks, first: when news like this comes from an unnamed source on some random forum, and that source is not even a primary one, and that secondary source quoted is also unnamed, and that person heard it from a third party that is also unnamed… well, oddly enough my skeptic alarm bell in my head rings loudly enough that my eardrums explode outward in every direction at the speed of light.

I hope I’m being clear here.

The first important thing to note here is that if Betelgeuse explodes, we’re in no danger at all. It’s too far away to hurt us. Got that? It’s the most important thing to remember here, because I’m quite sure this story will get wildly exaggerated as it gets repeated.

So, what’s the deal with Betelgeuse? What is it, will it explode, and if so, when?

The details:

Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the sky. That’s because it’s an intrinsically luminous star, and one that’s relatively close by. By luminous, I mean something like 100,000 times that of the Sun, and by close I mean roughly 600 light years away if not more. That’s 6 quadrillion kilometers, or almost 4 quadrillion miles. In other words, quite a hike.

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant. It has a mass of something like 20 times the Sun’s, and is near the end of its life. When it dies, it will explode as a supernova, a titanic event that is among the most violent in the Universe. For details on how this happens, read this essay I wrote about it.

It’s hard to know just when a star will explode when you’re on the outside. Betelgeuse might go up tonight, or it might not be for 100,000 years. We’re just not sure.

Betelgeuse isn’t round, and it’s shrinking!

In the bulletin board post, he talks about the star not being round. It’s unclear, but it sounds like he’s referring to observations which show that there is a big plume coming from the surface of Betelgeuse. That was exciting news when it was released, but not hugely surprising; stars are active, and massive stars even more so. Also, note that those “new” observations are a year old!


That image above is from even earlier, and shows a Hubble observation of Betelgeuse taken in 2005. Note here that the star doesn’t look round, but that’s an illusion. The image shows a hot spot in Betelgeuse’s swollen atmosphere, and that makes it look like a bump is hanging of the side. In reality, that’s just because of the way the image is printed, and isn’t an actual physical bump. But the hot spot (probably due to a big ol’ bubble of hot gas rising near the surface) in itself shows that things on the star change all the time; just recently two such spots were found.

The post also talks about Betelgeuse shrinking. That claim is from observations made over the course of many years. Those data indicate the star is shrinking, but it’s unclear what they mean. While it may mean the star is in fact shrinking, starspots (sunspots on another star) may be fooling us, for example. Also, red supergiants aren’t like marbles, with a clean, sharp surface. They are balls of gas, extended and bloated, so there is no real surface. It’s therefore entirely possible the astronomers aren’t even really measuring the surface of the star at all, and it’s just the highly extended atmosphere that’s changing.

Surface tension, rotten to the core

The point I’m making is that a lot of stuff can happen on the surface of the star that has nothing to do with the core. Since it’s the core that generates the star’s energy and eventually causes it to explode, what’s happening on the surface is not an indication of any impending explosion.

Mind you, the surface and the core do “talk” to each other, though slowly. As the core changes, that information does leak to the surface, but it takes centuries. Until, that is, the core collapses. When that happens, the shock wave takes hours or days to get to the surface, and the star explodes. But that’s hardly a slow event taking decades! So any changes we see happening now probably have little to do with what’s happening hundreds of millions of kilometers deep in the star.

Also, it’s been known for a long time that Betelgeuse is a variable star; its light output changes. This shrinking may just be a part of that natural cycle, and again no indication of an explosion.

Having said all that, I’ll note that someday, Betelgeuse will explode. That’s for certain! But it’s also way too far away to hurt us. A supernova has to be no farther than about 25 light years away to be able to fry us with light or anything else, and Betelgeuse is 25 times that distance (which means its power to hurt us is weakened by over 600x). It’s the wrong kind of star to explode as a gamma-ray burst, so I’m not worried about that either.

At that distance, it’ll get bright, about as bright as the full Moon. That’s pretty bright! It’ll hurt your eyes to look at it, but that’s about it. The original post says it may get as bright as the Sun, but that’s totally wrong. It won’t even get 1/100,000th that bright. Still bright, but it’s not going to cook us. Even if it were going to explode soon. Which it almost certainly isn’t.


So my personal opinion is that this is just another breathless rumor of astronomical doomsday that we get every couple of years. Even if any of the science of it is right, it doesn’t mean Betelgeuse is about to explode any day now. And since this is a rumor three times removed, I don’t put any stock in it. I’ll wait until I hear from named scientists with published or publishable data before I start to wonder if the star is about to blow.

And if and when it does explode, it can’t hurt us. Someday it will — maybe not for a hundred thousand years, but someday — and every astronomer on the planet hopes it happens in their lifetime! It will be a scientific bonanza unlike any ever seen.


Two Suns? Twin Stars Could Be Visible From Earth By 2012

The Huffington Post Dean Praetorius First Posted: 01/20/11 05:33 PM Updated: 01/22/11 07:11 PM

Earth could be getting a second sun, at least temporarily.

Dr. Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland, outlined the scenario to Betelgeuse, one of the night sky’s brightest stars, is losing mass, indicating it is collapsing. It could run out of fuel and go super-nova at any time.

When that happens, for at least a few weeks, we’d see a second sun, Carter says. There may also be no night during that timeframe.

The Star Wars-esque scenario could happen by 2012, Carter says… or it could take longer. The explosion could also cause a neutron star or result in the formation of a black hole 1300 light years from Earth, reports

But doomsday sayers should be careful about speculation on this one. If the star does go super-nova, Earth will be showered with harmless particles, according to Carter. “They will flood through the Earth and bizarrely enough, even though the supernova we see visually will light up the night sky, 99 per cent of the energy in the supernova is released in these particles that will come through our bodies and through the Earth with absolutely no harm whatsoever,” he told

In fact, a neutrino shower could be beneficial to Earth. According to Carter this “star stuff” makes up the universe. “It literally makes things like gold, silver – all the heavy elements – even things like uranium….a star like Betelgeuse is instantly forming for us all sorts of heavy elements and atoms that our own Earth and our own bodies have from long past supernovi,” said Carter.

UPDATE: To clarify, the article does not say a neutrino shower could be beneficial to Earth, but implies a supernova could be beneficial, stating, “Far from being a sign of the apocalypse, according to Dr Carter the supernova will provide Earth with elements necessary for survival and continuity.”


UPDATE II: In a follow-up piece on, Dr. Carter stressed that there is no way of knowing when the star may go supernova. U.S. astronomer Phil Plait added, “Betelgeuse might go up tonight, or it might not be for 100,000 years. We’re just not sure.”


Debunking the Betelgeuse Brouhaha

A Downer for Mayan Apocalypse Buffs, but Betelgeuse Going Supernova Has Nothing to Do With 2012

(Discover) I swear, I need to trust my instincts. As soon as I saw the article on the site desperately trying to link Betelgeuse going supernova with the nonsense about the Mayans and 2012, my gut reaction was to write about it.

But no, I figured a minute later, this story would blow over. So to speak.

I should’ve known: instead of going away, it gets picked up by that bastion of antiscience, The Huffington Post.


The actual science in the original article is pretty good; they talked with scientist Brad Carter who discusses the scenario of Betelgeuse going supernova. The whole story is pretty interesting – I wrote about it in detail the last time there was nonsense about Betelgeuse blowing up – but in a nutshell Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star in Orion with about 20 times the mass of the Sun, and it’s very near the end of its life. When stars this massive die, they explode as supernovae. The distance to Betelgeuse is unclear (it has a very puffy outer atmosphere which makes distance determination somewhat dicey) but it’s something like a bit more than 600 light years, way, way too far away to hurt us.

It’s the question of when that the two articles go off the rails. Betelgeuse may explode tomorrow night, or it may not go kerblooie until the year 100,000 A.D. We don’t know. But given that huge range, the odds of it blowing up next year are pretty slim. And clearly, the original article was really trying to tie in the 2012 date to this, even when it has nothing to do with anything. The tie-in was a rickety link to scuttlebutt on the web about it, but that’s about it.

What’s worse, the HuffPo article attributes the date to Dr. Carter himself, but in the original article he never says anything about it; the connection is all made by the article author. Given how popular HuffPo is, I imagine a lot of people will now think an actual scientist is saying Betelgeuse will blow up in 2012.

OK then, tell you what: 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.


I’m glad that both articles are clear that there is no danger from the star if and when it explodes. It’s simply too far away to do us any physical harm; a supernova would have to be within 25 light years or so before it would start to do measurable damage to Earth, and it would have to be much closer before that harm rose to the level of actual danger.

At 600+ light years, a supernova would be pretty bright, but hardly bright enough to be a second Sun, as both article 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.

And even better would be the science! Oh my, a close supernova like that would be a huge boon to astronomy. The ones we see are all so far away that details are too small to detect, but one that close would be like having it under the microscope*. We’d learn a huge amount. The funny thing is, it would be so bright astronomers would have a hard time using their best equipment, which would get swamped with all that light. I wonder how many amateur astronomers would suddenly find themselves able to do science the professionals couldn’t.

And of course, the best thing of all in having Betelgeuse explode is that it would bring billions of people outside and looking up. Betelgeuse is in a part of the sky that makes it visible everywhere on Earth but pretty much the South Pole. Far from being a harbinger of doomsday, it might actually be the single greatest benefit to astronomy that’s happened in hundreds of years.

Take that, Mayan apocalypse fearmongers!


ow at the star on left labeled α indicates Betelgeuse in Orion.
Observation data
Epoch J2000.0 Equinox J2000.0
Constellation Orion
Pronunciation /ˈbiːtəldʒuːz/ or
Right ascension 05h 55m 10.3053s[2]
Declination +07° 24′ 25.426″[2]
Apparent magnitude (V) 0.42[2] (0.3 to 1.2)
Spectral type M2Iab[2]
U−B color index 2.06[3]
B−V color index 1.85[3]
Variable type SR c (Semi-Regular)[2]
Radial velocity (Rv) +21.91[2] km/s
Proper motion (μ) RA: 24.95 ± 0.08[4] mas/yr
Dec.: 9.56 ± 0.15[4] mas/yr
Parallax (π) 5.07 ± 1.10[4] mas
Distance 643 ± 146 [4] ly
(197 ± 45 [4] pc)
Absolute magnitude (MV) −6.05[5]
Mass ~18–19[6] M
Radius ~1,180[7] R
Surface gravity (log g) -0.5[8]
Luminosity ~140,000[9] L
Temperature 3,500[8][10] K
Metallicity 0.05 Fe/H[11]
Rotation 5 km/s[10]
Age ~1.0×107 [6] years
Other designations
Betelgeuse, α Ori, 58 Ori, HR 2061, BD +7° 1055, HD 39801, FK5 224, HIP 27989, SAO 113271, GC 7451, CCDM J05552+0724AP, AAVSO 0549+07
Database references
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