What is Betelgeuse?
Out in space in the Orion constellation, there is a very bright star in our night sky known Betelgeuse. To put it most simply, it is a red supergiant, and one that dwarfs many others stars in the sky. Such as the big star known as Rigel which it outsizes in a rather significant way. Mainly because this star is 1.3 BILLION kilometers long. That’s basically three times the size of Rigel, which for the record is 97 million kilometers long. So yeah, definitely not a small star.
For a comparison, if some kind of cosmic event somehow dropped this massive star into our own solar system and replaced our own sun with it (which obviously won’t happen but why ruin the moment here?), the mass of Betelgeuse would basically destroy everything from the point of the sun all the way until Jupiter more than likely. So you should be glad this isn’t a thing that likely will happen…hopefully.
Betelgeuse is also the 10th brightest star in the sky overall, and it’s the 7th brightest star visible from most of the U.S., Canada, Europe and the majority of the Northern Hemisphere.
What’s that? How big is Betelgeuse compared to the Earth? I’m glad you asked! The Earth is about 40,000 kilometers long in circumference. Which means that this supergiant is 32,500 times bigger than us. That’s a lot. Like really, that’s a lot of mass for a single star. We talked about a star’s explosion in this post.
So yeah, that’s Betelgeuse on a very basic level. But there is more going on here with this star than you realize. Including the fact that this is a star that is going to explode one day, and that’s not something we should look forward to in one way or another.
The Star Will Explode, No Doubt
The life of stars is a very curious thing. As they burn very, VERY brightly in the sky, and that affects a lot of things around them. Take Earth for example. If our star burned less brightly, and thus less hot, our planet wouldn’t be in very good shape. In fact, our star is quite literally perfect in regards to how far it is from Earth, the light and heat it emits, and even how much radiation it pumps out into space itself. But that last bit is another topic entirely. To burn like it does, it has a very particular balance of energy within itself. This balance is between the gasses it creates, and the gasses it burns.
This goes for all stars, but not all stars are created equal as you hopefully know. There are white dwarf stars, red dwarf stars, supergiants, neutron stars, pulsars, and more, there’s a wide menagerie out there, but they work on very similar principles in terms of burning gasses for fuel.
For supergiants like Betelgeuse, the amount of energy that is needed to contain its massive size (1.3 billion kilometers to remind you) is a massive strain. Eventually, it’s going to run out of fuel, and when that happens it’ll start a process that’ll very likely end up with it exploding in space. This is one of many “natural” fates that stars face, but for Betelgeuse, the things this explosion could inflict are numerous.
And no, I’m not just referring to how our sky will be a little dimmer now that we can’t see it after its explosion.
Death and Life? Or Just Death?
So, when it comes to stars as a whole, they have a wait to “rebirth” themselves, or likely a more accurate description is to “recycle” themselves. Because a supergiant can go supernova, explode, and then the gasses that they leave behind over the course of many years can come together and create a new baby star. Thus throwing the whole cycle back to the beginning stages of star life. However, as I’m sure you’ve taken not of before, not all stars do this. Some stars straight up die, some even are able to compress themselves much quicker so that they become a new star almost instantaneously. And some are able to compress themselves in such a way that they can become new kinds of stars like Neutrons.
But will this happen with Betelgeuse? The honest answer here is no. There were a lot of people who felt that this could’ve happened to Betelgeuse given its life, size, and power. But eventually it was determined that after it goes Supernova and full-on explodes it won’t have the power to become a brand new star. Still, it will be rather cool to see a SUPER bright star in the sky that is even more powerful than it is right now. But yeah, when it dies, it’ll die. that’s just how stars goes sadly. Some aren’t able to have new life, but that doesn’t make it something we should be sad about per se, just something that we can accept and use it to study other stars in the galaxy, and of course, the universe.
Will This Explosion Hurt Earth In Any Way?
Man, how conceited are we? Does everything that happens in the universe have to be about us in the end? Oh, it does? Oh, ok then, I’ll answer that question.
The very basic answer is that it has no immediately or long-lasting effects on Earth in terms of damage. The first big reason for this is that of distance. How far is Betelgeuse from the Earth? That would be about 430 light years. So a VERY VERY long way away. However, there are some who feel that it’s a bit farther, about 650 light years away. That’s because measuring objects in space due to their constant shifting and orbits (not to mention the bending of light) makes it hard to pinpoint as a whole.
Regardless, even if it was a singular light year away it wouldn’t have as much impact on us as you would think it would. So times that by hundreds and we’ll be quite safe as a whole. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t see it right now, and that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to see its “transformation” once it goes supernova and then later on explodes. As mentioned before, we already see Betelgeuse in the Orion Constellation. So if you have a telescope and a clear night, you’ll be able to see it, and that’s in its red supergiant form. Now try and picture it as a supernova, which is many times the size of a supergiant. Yeah, it’ll be visible, and very much something that scientists as a whole are going to enjoy viewing.
So yeah, all in all, the Earth will be safe, which is good.
Comparisons To Our Own Sun
I’m sure after all of this talk about Betelgeuse that you’re wondering what it’s like compared to our own sun. So let me shoot off some numbers for you. First up, let’s talk size.
So compared to the Earth, Betelgeuse is 32,500 times bigger, but how about compared to the sun? Well, it is a little smaller a size difference…but not by too much when you think about it. In round numbers, its 15 times the mass of the sun, but 600 times wider and more than 200 million times its volume. Which again enforces just how big the star known as Betelgeuse is, and more importantly, the differences between the different classes of stars.
But, here’s some of the bigger kickers. In terms of brightness, Betelgeuse outshines the sun by a factor of 50,000! Technically in terms of pure brightness it’s only 10,000 times brighter than the sun, but that’s still a lot when you think about it.
Oh, what about temperature? That’s where things get interesting, because despite it being much bigger as noted a few moments ago, its core temperature is actually LESS than our own sun. Our sun burns at just over 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But Betelgeuse? It only emits about 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit of temperature. Size doesn’t always matter when it comes to heat.
The “Origins” Of Betelgeuse and the Orion Constellation
Want to have a little fun? Cool, let’s talk about the name of Betelgeuse and how it became a “factor” in our night sky. After all, someone had to see it and go, “Well that star looks important!”, right? So where exactly did the rather odd name Betelgeuse come from? Well…
” The name Betelgeuse apparently is derived from an Arabic phrase that is usually translated as The Armpit of the Giant. Of course the Giant refers to Orion, but – rather than an armpit – some authors see Betelgeuse as representing a hand or sometimes a shoulder. While it is not entirely clear what the name means, in any event, Betelgeuse marks the right shoulder of Orion in many old star maps.”
Orion of course is referenced in many mythologies, including Greek mythology where he was a legendary hunter. He was so skilled that he made a boast of being able to kill any wild animal on the planet. This angered the goddess Gaia, who sent an armored scorpion to kill him. He was able to avoid the scorpion by jumping into the sea. However, Apollo was also not fond of Orion, and tricked his twin sister Artemis (a skilled hunter herself) into killing him. When she realized what had happened, she begged the gods to bring him back, but they wouldn’t. So, she decided to put him into the sky as stars so that she’d always be able to see him.
Of course, any of you who are fond of pop culture likely know about the legendary character that sounds very “similar” to Betelgeuse. Mainly… Beetlejuice. Just be careful not to say his name three times. Coincidence? I think not. It’s actually been confirmed that the star (the actual star) was the reason that Beetlejuice (yes, that’s two, I’ll be careful) got birthed the way it did.
See? And people say Hollywood doesn’t pay attention to the rest of the world. Right, Beetle-….ah! Gotcha! Let’s move on.
Do We Have To Fear Our Sun Pulling A Betelgeuse?
Getting back on a more serious track, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Mainly, if Betelgeuse is going to explode one day, and it’s the fate of all stars to explode on their own one day…do we have to fear this happening to our own star? Well…yes and no.
As noted, the fate of all stars, no matter what their size or complexion is to die, or be reborn in a unique way, but usually that means that they have to die first in some way. Here’s the catch though, humanity and the Earth will be LONG gone by that point. How does that work? Well remember, right now our sun is a certain class, one that is known as a “yellow dwarf” star. Which means it’s not a class of a supergiant like Betelgeuse. Why does that matter? Think about it, for it to die, it would need to be old enough or big enough to get to the point where the balance of gasses are disrupted. Our sun isn’t close to that right now.
As it gets older though? That’ll change, and it’ll change with it. So the end of Earth and humanity in our solar system more than likely will come not when our sun explodes, but when it turns into a red giant, which is a natural phase of its life.
So yeah, life is all screwed, right? Not so much. At present guesses, this will happen about 7.5 BILLION years into the future. Which means we have more than enough time to get the heck out of the solar system and onto a planet that is then more suitable and not facing a burning death.
If it does explode after that phase turn though, it could potentially take out the solar system. Not that we’d be there to witness it. I’m just saying.
When Will Betelgeuse Explode?
That is another good question, and one that is also a bit tricky to answer. Not that there aren’t a lot of theories as to when the star known as Betelgeuse will explode, but rather that when it comes to stars, and gasses, and the workings of space as a whole…it’s hard to predict things.
For example, it’s more than probably that Betelgeuse will explode in the next several lifetimes. Or, it could die tomorrow…OR…it could die in the next thousand years, million years, we honestly don’t know. It doesn’t help that the star is so far away that we can only look at it via probes and telescopes (not including our naked eyes of course). And there’s no way to truly study it outside of pictures, so trying to make a prediction is a bit finnicky.
Stars are unpredictable, and until it does happen, all we can do is guess as to when it’ll happen.
So after all that talk of Betelgeuse…where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with another look at a fascinating part of our universe. Stars are everywhere in the sky, and not all of them are alike, which is why we study them. And studying stars like Betelgeuse gives us a better appreciation for how those types of stars work.
The more we know about them, the more we know about our universe. They are a literal bright spot, and that is something to be appreciated. Especially when they explode for all the universe to see.