Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Betelgeuse Will Kill Us All!!!!
There's some wild rumors going on around the internet that the red supergiant star Betelgeuse, some 640 light years away, may be getting ready to go supernova. (Or, to put it more accurately, the star may have already blown over half a millennium ago and the light from the event may be about to reach us.)
The claim is inspired by some wild speculation going around on some blogs, taking note of the fact that Betelgeuse has seemed to shrink about 15% since 1993, Also, the star might have taken on asymmetrical characteristics, ie, its no longer round to Earth observers; a massive plume may have blown off of its surface, or the contraction may be speedier in some areas than other, or one of its giant convection cells may have collapsed, or some such.
But its enough for some people to cry supernova, and for even more people who can't quite comprehend how immensely far away 640 light years is to start the doomsday talk. Now, granted, if Betelgeuse did blow, it wouldn't just be a once-in-a-lifetime event--it would be a once-in-human-history event. We would have one hell of a spectacular light show in the night sky for many months. The supernova would shine more brightly than a full moon for many weeks, and slowly fade into a small, but slowly expanding, visible nebula.
There's a lot we don't know. We really don't have too much insight into the details of how red supergiant stars work up close; for all we know the contraction may be part of a natural centuries-long cycle. Its a HUGE star, its circumference is greater than the orbit of Jupiter. But that means its outer photosphere is very cool and tenuous, and could be easily perturbed by forces within or without of the star. heck, for all we know, one of Betelgeuse's surviving outer planets may just be plowing through the outer edges of the star, causing the asymmetrical plume like a water wake.
Like most stars, Betelgeuse is very active, and we simply don't know what may be going on. Just because we it do something new doesn't mean a nova is imminent (or was imminent 640 years ago--aw, you know what I mean.)
But even so, we're so far away that the radiation pulse from the initial explosion won't harm anything, though it could conceivable cause some interference in satellite signals. A gamma ray burst could happen if it went supernova, but those happen along the axis of its rotational poles, and we're in the wrong position for those to touch us. And any physical shockwave would be long since dissipated in the hundreds of thousands of years it would take to get here.
No, I think on the very off-chance that Betelgeuse may detonate, the real danger to us would be new brand of crazy it would spark among many people whose sanity was already questionable. You know the type, the people who see any minor event in the world as a sign of the end times, or that the prophet is about to return, or some such. All they'd need is an actual 'sign' in the heavens to trigger all sorts of new delusions.
But anyway, don't give too much credit to the rumors that Betelgeuse may go supernova soon--unless it beats the odds and actually happens, of course. And certainly don't believe any doomsday predictions associated with it.