If there’s one star in the sky people know about, it’s Betelgeuse. Marking the right shoulder of the hunter Orion—remember, he’s facing us, so it’s on our left—this orange-red star is one of the brightest in the night sky. It’s been studied for as long as we’ve had telescopes, yet for all our advanced technology and knowhow, details about it are maddeningly vague. We don’t even have a good determination of how far away it is!
Still, there’s a lot we do know: It’s a red supergiant, a star that started out life already a lot bigger, more massive, and far more luminous than the Sun. Stars like that go through their nuclear fuel extremely rapidly; while the Sun is only approaching middle age at 4.5 billion years old, Betelgeuse is dying now at an age of less than 10 million years old. And when it does finally give up the ghost, it’ll do so with a bang. A very, very big bang: It’ll go supernova, one of nature’s most dramatic and ridiculously violent events.
But when? A lot’s been written about that. If you believe pseudoscientists and crackpots, you might have thought 2012 was our last chance to see it. Sometimes the news spreads that it’ll go any day now. Somehow, oddly, despite all that nonsense you can still see Betelgeuse shining in the sky.
However, the thing is, it really will explode one day. We don’t really know when, exactly, which is why I usually hedge my bet by saying it could be tonight, but more likely it’ll be hundreds of thousands of years from now … a million years, tops.
As a scientist, that date range is a little bothersome. That’s why I was delighted to read a research paper trying to nail down this very fact. While it’s still a bit iffy, and details are still elusive, the astronomers who did the research were able to make a much more refined prediction: Betelgeuse will go boom in about 100,000 years.
Wow. That’s sooner than I would have thought. It’s still a long way off, of course, but in a galactic sense that’s a blink of the eye. Lots more here: Betelgeuse: Astronomers give it 100,000 years before it explodes.