Saturday, April 9, 2011

Will Betelgeuse be Earth's second sun? 01.24.11

Some news agencies, including the Huffington Post, have recently been running reports that Earth will “soon” be warmed by a second sun beginning in 2012. Betelgeuse is losing mass and is due to explode, or go “supernova.” When it does so, it is expected to become significantly brighter for a period of time, even gaining the ability to cast shadows.

Now, “soon,” we must remember, is being used in astronomical terms, reminds astronomer Jim Kaler at the University of Illinois, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on stars. “It’s as likely to happen a million years from now as it is tomorrow,” he cautions, so Earth can rest easy and breathe a collective sigh of relief. There is only a laughably slim chance that it could actually blow in 2012.

Image credit:
Betelgeuse is about 10-20 times as massive as our Sun, and is about 600 light years away in the constellation Orion. A light year is a measure of distance that denotes the distance a ray of light can travel in one year; about 6 trillion miles. So at that distance, Earth is in no danger from any sort of gamma-ray bursts or radiation, says Kaler. He notes, too, that Betelgeuse is not even the correct kind of star to emit gamma-bursts when it goes supernova. It will, however, make a ghastly mess of the constellation Orion when it does finally decide to kick the bucket, however, as supernovas usually destroy everything within a 30 light year, 360 degree perimeter with the powerful shock wave they emit. So, think death star explosion, but oh, so much bigger. This image is an artist’s rendition of what the supernova may look like.

So will it be Earth’s second sun? Not likely, Kaler says. It will be noticeably brighter outside for a time, but it will probably only cast about as much light as a crescent moon.


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