NASA reveals unprecedented images of supergiant Betelgeuse eruption

One of the giant red supergiants in the constellation Orion, Betelgeuse, has undergone a massive stellar eruption—an eruption never seen before, according to astronomers.

Betelgeuse first came to attention in late 2019, when the star, which shimmers like a red gem in the upper right shoulder of Orion, unexpectedly dimmed. The supergiant star continues to dim in 2020.

Some scientists have speculated that the star would explode in a supernova, and they have been trying to determine what happened to it ever since.

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Now, astronomers have analyzed data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories, and they believe the star underwent a massive ejection of surface mass that lost most of its visible surface.

“We’ve never seen a massive mass ejection from the surface of a star before.” Andrea Dupree, an astrophysicist at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a statement , we’re left with something we don’t fully understand.

“This is a completely new phenomenon, and we can directly observe and resolve surface details with Hubble. We are watching stellar evolution in real time.”

super giant betelgeuse Credit: NASA, ESA, Elizabeth Whitley (S

Our Sun regularly experiences coronal mass ejections, in which the star releases part of its outer atmosphere, known as the corona. If this space weather hits Earth, it could have implications for satellite-based communications and power grids.

But the surface mass ejection experienced by Betelgeuse released 400 billion times the mass of a typical solar coronal mass ejection.

life of a star

Observing Betelgeuse and its unusual behavior allows astronomers to observe what happens later in the star’s life.

As Betelgeuse burns fuel at its core, it has expanded to enormous proportions, becoming a red supergiant. The massive star is 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) across.

Eventually, the star will explode in a supernova, an event that may be briefly visible during the day on Earth. Meanwhile, the star is going through some fiery tempers.

According to the astronomers, the mass that stars lose when they burn up through nuclear fusion later in their life affects their survival, but even losing a significant amount of surface mass is not a sign that Betelgeuse is ready to explode.

Astronomers like Dupree studied how the star behaved before, during and after the eruption to try to understand what happened.

Scientists believe that a convective plume that extends over 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) originated inside the star.

The shocks and pulsations from the plume trigger the eruption, which peels off a large chunk of the star’s outer shell called the photosphere.

Betelgeuse’s photosphere, several times heavier than the moon, was released into space. As the mass cooled, it formed a huge dust cloud that blocked the star’s light when viewed through telescopes on Earth.

Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in Earth’s night sky, so its dimming — which lasted several months — is visible through observatories and backyard telescopes.

recover from explosion

Astronomers have measured Betelgeuse’s rhythm for 200 years. The star’s pulse is essentially a cycle of dimming and brightening that restarts every 400 days. That pulsation has now stopped – a testament to the importance of this eruption.

Dupree believes that the convective cells inside the star that drives the pulsation are still reverberating in the explosion, and compares it to the sloshing of an unbalanced washing machine tub.

Telescope data showed that as Betelgeuse slowly recovered, the star’s outer layers had returned to normal, but its surface remained elastic as the photosphere was reconstructed.

“Betelgeuse is now going on to do some very unusual things,” Dupri said. “It’s a little bouncy inside.”

Astronomers have never seen a star lose so much of its visible surface before, suggesting that surface mass ejections and coronal mass ejections could be two very different things.

Researchers will have more follow-up opportunities by using the James Webb Space Telescope to observe the mass ejected from the star, which may reveal more clues in otherwise invisible infrared light.

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