DON'T PANIC! Betelgeuse Won't Explode in 2012

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A reconstructed image of Betelgeuse showing evidence for hot spots on the star’s surface.
Observatoire de Paris/NASA

Betelgeuse is a dying star. It’s reached the end of the line and currently in the terminal throes of shedding vast bubbles of gas into space. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star and it’s so massive that it will detonate as a supernova.

With all this drama happening 640 light-years away in the constellation of Orion, there’s little wonder that this tumultuous star is easy headline bait.

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Betelgeuse is a celebrity amongst stars and no stranger to astronomers’ zoom lenses. And like any celebrity, news can break at any time, for any reason, and today I received a surge of messages via Twitter and email pointing me to a big Betelgeuse scoop that can be summarized as: The star is gonna blow! Soon! Possibly around 2012!

Naturally, I checked out the source of this breaking story to find… well, not much.

On reading a few sentences from the Australian News.com.au article, one would think the journalist had found the story of the decade. NEWS FLASH: An exploding Betelgeuse is one of the most over-used sensationalist stellar events to appear in the tabloid press in recent years. There’s no scoop here, move along.

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The article kicks off by equating Betelgeuse’s impending explosion with the “twin suns” on Tatooine, the world where Star Wars‘ Luke Skywaker lived. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke watches the setting binary stars of Tatoo. When Betelgeuse goes supernova, will it really shine as bright as our sun, perhaps giving us that famous double-sun scene from Star Wars?

That’s a nice thought, but 640 light-years is still quite a distance, and although when it does blow astronomers think we’ll be able to see the explosion for some weeks during the day — still a very impressive and historic event — that’s a far cry from thinking a sun-supernova combo could resemble any binary star system.

But the biggest issue to come out of this article is the ominous and completely erroneous mention of… wait for it… 2012.

“The infamous red super-giant star in Orion’s nebula — Betelgeuse — is predicted to go gangbusters and the impending super-nova may reach Earth before 2012, and when it does, all of our wildest Star Wars dreams will come true,” the article says.

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The last time Betelgeuse hit the news was when research revealed the star was shrinking. But as pointed out by astronomers, this shrinkage could be part of a natural cycle, or it could be that Betelgeuse isn’t symmetrical. Naturally, people got all weird about this fascinating science and concluded that a big boom was imminent.

And now we have some 2012 nonsense thrown into the equation. Even though it is abundantly clear that Betelgeuse is far enough away just to give us a safe firework display and not a roasting when it does go supernova, it seems the temptation is just too great for some doomsday theorists and tabloid writers.

Phil Plait weighed on the previous Betelgeuse-doomsday scenario last year, and in two paragraphs he puts the danger of Betelgeuse to bed:

Having said all that, I’ll note that someday, Betelgeuse will explode. That’s for certain! But it’s also way too far away to hurt us. A supernova has to be no farther than about 25 light years away to be able to fry us with light or anything else, and Betelgeuse is 25 times that distance (which means its power to hurt us is weakened by over 600x). It’s the wrong kind of star to explode as a gamma-ray burst, so I’m not worried about that either. At that distance, it’ll get bright, about as bright as the full Moon. That’s pretty bright! It’ll hurt your eyes to look at it, but that’s about it. The original post says it may get as bright as the Sun, but that’s totally wrong. It won’t even get 1/100,000th that bright. Still bright, but it’s not going to cook us. Even if it were going to explode soon. Which it almost certainly isn’t.

But what’s all this fuss about the star exploding by 2012? That’s complete garbage. There is absolutely no indication that the star will explode in the next year or so. Even the most advanced telescopes and sophisticated computer models cannot predict an exploding star with that precision!

By the article’s own admission, the supernova might not happen for a million years — begging the question as to why a half-baked 2012 Betelgeuse doomsday theory is even being mentioned.

Betelgeuse is a fascinating star, but don’t be concerned about its planet-killing ability. It’s too far away and it might not go “gangbusters” for another million years.

As Cosmic Log’s Alan Boyle would say: DON’T PANIC!

UPDATE: The Huffington Post is reporting the same story, but they’ve made the mistake of attributing some of the News.com.au article’s conclusions to Dr Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland.

Although Carter does provide quotes, he does not say that due to a Betelgeuse supernova “we’d see a second sun”, “there may also be no night” or “the Star Wars-esque scenario could happen by 2012.” These statements were made by the reporter, not the interviewee (as far as we can tell from the article).

But nowhere in the News.com.au article does it say anything about neutrinos being “beneficial to Earth,” the Huffington Post made that part up (or they’ve been watching too many Roland Emmerich movies).

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Jerry in the comments, I’ve corrected the text to say that Luke Skywalker was raised on Tatooine, he wasn’t born there. He was born on Polis Massa. I feel I should have known that…

Special thanks to @cosmos4u and @LOTWendigo.

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