Something is going to happen in the Universe, it will happen soon at least. Soon, that is, in the scale of the Universe, but you might just live to see it, this rather specific and impressive event. Some are expecting it to cause the apocalypse, a tidal wave of force tearing our solar system into shreds. Meanwhile others are expecting a second sun to appear from the depths of space, shine benevolently down on us and remove the night for its brief visit before going on its merry way.
These both sound preposterous, I am well aware of it, however they both contain a grain in truth, there has merely been some exaggeration of the facts. We will have a great force tearing through our solar system, and we will gain something new in the sky during the daytime. Here is how this will happen, and also exactly how good or bad it shall be.
However first I feel compelled to assure you that everything will be fine, we will not die or be left with half an incinerated planet. The event is impressive, but not that impressive.
Now, these speculations about the apocalypse and a new sun are both based around the handsome star that shines in the Orion constellation.
It’s name is Betelgeuse, it’s name is Arabic. It means ‘Orion’s Armpit.’ It is the eighth brightest star in the sky, it is also one of the largest stars we have ever seen, that’s no surprise though, considering its type. The star is a ‘red supergiant‘ These types of star are the largest by volume in the universe.
Betelgeuse in fact is 2.1 billion kilometres across, if we put it inside of our solar system where the sun currently resides, it would swallow Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and then the Asteroid belt for good measure. It wouldn’t quite reach Jupiter, but I think that was enough to get across the point. Betelgeuse is large, and at around 640 light years away, it is rather close. So what is it going to do? Why are people mentioning the Apocalypse, 2012 conspiracy theories and a second sun?
It is because Betelgeuse is 10 million years old, quite old for a red supergiant, it has reached a special time in its life. It is dying, and it will certainly going to go out with a bang. Specifically on a scale so large that a sun has to be at lest 9 times as heavy as our sun to even carry it out.
Betelgeuse is going to go bang. A giant-star-blowing-itself-up sized bang.
It starts with the core. Currently we can see that Betelgeuse is shrinking, this is because its core has made an amount of iron with a mass about 1.4 times larger than our suns. This may be amazing, but for Betelgeuse it is a great annoyance. The iron has slowed the nuclear reactions fueling Betelgeuse and the sheer size of Betelgeuse means that its own gravity is causing it to slowly implode on itself. It will then heat up the core, and BOOM!
A type II supernova. The star will suddenly flare brighter and send billions of tons of superheated plasma into space along with possibly devastating gamma rays which will, thankfully, go away from us. Anyway, thanks to the distance we will only receive all of the electromagnetic energy 640 years after said supernova. The energy will pass through our solar system over 3 or so months, during which time it will not destroy us, and it will become very visible.
Although not a bright as the sun, for two or so months it will outshine the moon and be visible in broad daylight, reminding all human beings that the Universe is indeed, still there. It won’t kill us, damaged us, or take away a month of night, but it will be a marvel, the remains of a dead sun showering the earth with light. A reminder that the Universe is still there, something all too often forgotten.
Whether you will live to see it is another matter. The problem with this supernova is two-fold. Firstly we don’t know enough about Betelgeuse to say exactly when it will decide to blow itself apart; secondly we are 640 light years away, so the supernova could actually have already happened and the light may have been traveling towards us for several centuries, we just don’t know. It could happen in 2012, and scare a lot of people. It could happen tomorrow and amaze you, or it could happen in a million years.
The only certainty is that this truly unique event, will only happen once for us earth-dwellers. There are no other stars in the vicinity which can produce anything like this, there are larger stars the Betelgeuse but they are too far away, so this is a one-off. I certainly hope that we will all live to see it, but who knows? That’s the beauty of the Universe.
Click here for more information on Betelgeuse.
Click here for an article deconstructing the false claims made by uneducated observers.