Astronomers and astrophysicists observe and analyze the fates and fortunes of stars up there, leaving lesser mortals to worry about oil depletion, global warming, threats of terrorism, and the like. They entertain themselves in conferences and with technical papers dealing with topics of stellar significance, rather than in tea-parties. But once in a while they let common folks know of matters of sky-watching interest, should these become imminent in the nocturnal sky. So now they have announced they have reasons to believe that the star Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation is on the verge of a grand explosion, and that this would result in the emergence of a supernova, which would be clearly visible to curious terrestrial spectators.
Betelgeuse is what one calls a red supergiant. It was the first star whose diameter was determined. We now know that it is so huge that if it took the place of our sun, even Jupiter would be within it, what to say of our earth! With a mass almost twenty times that of the sun, it is so large its density is unimaginably low – almost a vacuum. It is 640 light years away and is still one of the brightest stars in the sky.
Now the prediction is that Betelgeuse is on its way to a major life-transition. Though quite young, it is going to explode with such ferocity that it will become a supernova spectacle. [Actually the explosion would have occurred 640 years ago for us to notice it now.] More exactly, though astronomers are sure the star (from our perspective) is on it ways to extinction, the expected eruption could occur sometime within the next ten thousand years.
Whenever it may be, what we will be seeing won’t be like a faint comet or an eclipse transient interest, nor a spectacle of gigantic celestial dimensions, but something still note-worthy, like a bigger-than Venus addition to the twinkling gems in the nocturnal sky.
Anything unusual on the celestial canvass tends to strike many earthlings as something ominous or symbolically meaningful. Given that on the basis of inscrutable reckoning some elders have said that there would be one of the periodically predicted end-of-the-world events in 2012 – nothing to do with the American presidential elections – , this announcement by astronomers has boosted soothsayers to start chanting their “I/They told you so!” slogan, trying to convince the gullible that without telescopes and astrophysical equations some ancients knew all about when the next supernova would blow up, or at least in which year the world would come to a deadly end. The assumption is that the debris of the Betelgeuse burn will hit us all, resulting in a disaster (a word which literally means bad star).
As historical irony would have it, the way things are going with all the conflicts and confrontations, oil depletion and scarcity of water, glaciers melting and air pollution, not to mention banks closing down and China overtaking the U.S. in every sphere, and increasing disagreements about the existence of God, the prediction of an imminent catastrophe doesn’t seem to be all that unlikely. And yet, there are compelling reasons to believe that humanity’s end is not that near, or that it would come as a result of an event that probably took place more than six hundred years ago in a remote constellation.
In any event, if and when evidence of that fantastic astrophysical demise of a distant star reaches us, and no matter how the general public reacts to it, professional astronomers will have a field-year to study the phenomenon and write papers on the topic for various astrophysical journals.
In the meanwhile, enterprising entrepreneurs will most likely make mugs, medallions and other memorabilia – most probably in China – and sell them to eager buyers all over the world, to mark the belching of Betelgeuse. This would perhaps the first time that a supernova would turn out to be an economic boon to some. I remember star gazing as a high-school student, fascinated often by Orion wherein the star stands. An astrologer told me then that Betelgeuse was a good-luck star. I had no idea what he meant, but now I think it might bring good fortune to some trinket-merchants.
January 22, 2011