It's not just our little blue ball of a planet that seems to be going through momentous change. Beth Touchette says even Orion could be losing a shoulder.
With all that’s been going on on Earth lately, it is understandable that many of us have not looked up to the night sky, but it too is in flux. The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, in the constellation Orion the Hunter, has become noticeably dimmer over the last year. Some astrophysicists speculate that Betelgeuse could soon explode, creating a supernova.
Unlikely, but if it did, the star would shine as brightly as the half moon, for three months. The dying star would be visible during the day, and we could create nighttime shadows with its ancient light. After a year or so, Orion’s left shoulder would be replaced by a dim neutron star. Betelgeuse is already impressive. If it replaced our sun, it would engulf all the space up to Jupiter.
I noticed a variety of responses to Betelgeuse’s possible demise. One of my students expressed concern about how the months of bright nighttime skies would affect life on Earth, like the spawning of coral and the greater visibility of nighttime prey. Some astronomers, signed up for precious telescope time, already worry about the loss of nighttime darkness. Many might miss a star with the same name as the well-loved 1980s horror/comedy film.
What intrigues me the most is that the story of Betelgeuse is already written. Because Earth is 700 light years away, we can only now can see images that left the star while we were in the Middle Ages. We can speculate, we can predict, but somewhere in space, travelling at 3 million kilometers per second, is the light that could answer all our questions.