In the evening hours of late winter and early spring in the northern mid-latitudes like Ontario, the constellation Orion is a very familiar friend. The brightest star in Orion, Betelgeuse, is itself endlessly fascinating.
If you can picture the constellation then you can find Betelgeuse right away. It’s the orange-shaded bright star at the “right shoulder” of Orion – or on the left as we see the asterism. The other stars in Orion don’t have a noticeable colour most of the time, but Betelgeuse is decidedly reddish-orange.
Betelgeuse has been known as an interesting star since antiquity, but what astronomers have learned in the past 20 or more years make it all the more fascinating. For one thing, we don’t know how far away it is too much in the way of accuracy. Betelgeuse is relatively close to earth – somewhere between 400 and 700 light years away, or only about half as far as the Great Nebula in Orion, which we see with our naked eyes as the third “star” in the sword hanging from Orion’s belt. The lack of accuracy is no indication of lack of trying. For stars of this distance, astronomers often use a triangulation method called parallax to work out distances. Betelgeuse is hard to pin down this way because it is not in fact a “point” of light in the sky. The star is so big and so close that it actually has been photographed as a disk by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 (Gilliland & Dupree. 1996). It has a complex outer envelope that is changing its size and shape, and makes the parallax method no better than about 1 part in 5 for accuracy. The star is about 640 light years away, but that’s plus & minus 140 light years!
The size of this star is also staggering. Its diameter is approximately the same as the diameter of the orbit of Saturn in our own solar system. It’s also shining about 100,000 times as bright as our own sun. It’s likely a relatively young star compared to our own sun, and some time in the near future (in astronomical terms) it will likely explode as a supernova.
Recent scientific papers on Betelgeuse have gathered together more observations of the star itself and have tried to interpret various areas that look brighter to us as either bright patches on a darker background, or possibly as bright areas areas showing up through overlaying dark features.
This star is also moving quickly toward a linear “wall” of material that is part of the local stellar environment. Betelgeuse has a shell of glowing material thought to be part of the material blown off of the surface of the star in the past. This shell will hit the wall in about 5,000 years, followed by the star itself about 12,000 years later (Decin et al. 2012). Don’t wait up for it.
Decin et al. 2012. The enigmatic nature of the circumstellar envelope and bow shock surrounding Betelgeuse as revealed by Herschel. I. Evidence of clumps, multiple arcs, and a linear bar-like structure. Astronomy and Astrophysics 548, A113 (http://www.aanda.org/index.php?option=com_article&access=standard&Itemid=129&url=/articles/aa/full_html/2012/12/aa19792-12/aa19792-12.html).
Gilliland & Dupree. 1996. HST imaging of Betelgeuse. Stellar surface structure: proceedings of the 176th Symposium of the International Astronomical Union, held in Vienna, Austria, October 9-13, 1995. Edited by Klaus G. Strassmeier and Jeffrey L. Linsky. International Astronomical Union. Symposium no. 176, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, p.165 (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1996IAUS..176..165G)
Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith