January 24, 2011

Experts Unsure When Betelgeuse Will Explode

Just like out of a good science fiction setting on some far-off planet, our own Earth could soon have a second sun, but only for a limited time.

The cosmic phenomenon will occur when one of the brightest stars in our night sky suffers a cataclysmic event -- exploding into a supernova.

The supergiant red star Betelgeuse in Orion's nebula is predicted to explode, with the impending supernova possibly even reaching Earth.

According to a report released Saturday, the most spectacular light show in the planet's history could happen as early as this year.

But according to experts, it is highly unlikely to occur even before the end of 2012 -- when doomsday fanatics say the world will come to an end. While the second biggest star in the universe is strangely losing mass and is destined to explode and become a supernova, there is no reason to believe it will happen anytime soon, experts told

However, Earth will undoubtedly have a front row seat when Betelgeuse eventually blows itself into oblivion. The explosion will be so bright that even though the star is 640 light-years away, it will turn night into day and will appear like there are two suns in the sky for at least a week or two.

"The story is pretty 'Hollywoody,'" New Jersey Institute of Technology professor Philip R. Goode told Although the star's eventual explosion is inevitable, nobody knows for sure when it will happen, he explained -- 2012 is merely a simple assumption.

Phil Plait, an astronomer who writes for Discovery News, agrees that someday, Betelgeuse will explode. But it's way too far away to hurt us, he explained.

"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," Plait wrote on his blog The Bad Astronomer.

The story was fueled by a report from Australian news site -- owned by News Corp, which also owns -- which predicted that a massive explosion will occur, tens of millions of times brighter than our sun, and suggested that the event was imminent.

In stellar terms, Betelgeuse is expected to crash and burn in the very near future. But that doesn't mean you should run out and buy a pair of sunglasses anytime soon.

Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, claimed yesterday that the galactic blast could happen before 2012 -- but also could occur any time over the next million years.

"This old star is running out of fuel in its center," Carter told "This fuel keeps Betelgeuse shining and supported. When this fuel runs out the star will literally collapse in upon itself and it will do so very quickly."

"This is the final hurrah for the star. It goes bang, it explodes, it lights up - we'll have incredible brightness for a brief period of time for a couple of weeks and then over the coming months it begins to fade and then eventually it will be very hard to see at all," he added.

When Betelgeuse does explode, it definitely will be visible from Earth, Goode confirmed.

"One could roughly expect it to be as bright as a full moon and gradually fade away over a few months. Everyone on Earth would notice and be talking about it," he told He also noted that, due to the time required for light from the star to reach our planet, the event would be history by the time we saw it happen.

"Betelgeuse is several hundred light years away, so if it were to light up the sky in 2012 it would have exploded in the Middle Ages," he said.

Doomsday theories have lit up the Internet tying the supernova to the Mayan calendar's prediction of an Armageddon in 2012, fueled by the association of the word "Betelgeuse" with the devil.

But even if the phenomenon is looming, it will still be too far from Earth to pose any real danger.

Carter said that by the time a star explodes, "the first we will observe of it is a rain of tiny particles called neutrinos."

"They will flood through the Earth and bizarrely enough, even though the supernova we see visually will light up the night sky, 99 percent 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 said.

"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," Plait explained.

Goode agreed. "If you want to bet on it, it's better to try the lottery," he said.

Betelgeuse, scientifically known as Alpha Orionis, was the first star to be directly imaged by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. It is a red supergiant marking the shoulder of the winter constellation Orion the Hunter. It is the ninth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest in the constellation Orion. Its unique orange-red color makes it easy to spot in the night sky.

If Betelgeuse was at the center of our solar system, its surface would extend past the asteroid belt, easily engulfing Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth. 


Image Caption: This artist's impression shows the supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was revealed thanks to different state-of-the-art techniques on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), which allowed two independent teams of astronomers to obtain the sharpest ever views of the supergiant star Betelgeuse. They show that the star has a vast plume of gas almost as large as our Solar System and a gigantic bubble boiling on its surface. These discoveries provide important clues to help explain how these mammoths shed material at such a tremendous rate. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada