Starts With A Bang

What will happen when Betelgeuse explodes? (Synopsis)

The constellation of Orion, along with the great molecular cloud complex and including its brightest stars. Betelgeuse, the nearby, bright red supergiant (and supernova candidate), is at the lower left. Image credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

“Without these supernova explosions, there are no mist-covered swamps, computer chips, trilobites, Mozart or the tears of a little girl. Without exploding stars, perhaps there could be a heaven, but there is certainly no Earth.” -Clifford A. Pickover

One of the most sobering cosmic truths is that every star in the Universe will someday run out of fuel and die. Once its core fuel is exhausted, all it can do is contract under its own gravitational pull, fusing heavier and heavier elements until it can go no further. Only the most massive stars, capable of continuing to fuse carbon (and even heavier elements) will ever create the Universe’s ultimate cataclysmic event: a Type II, or core collapse, supernova.

At peak brightness, a supernova can shine nearly as brightly as the rest of the stars in a galaxy combined. This 1994 image shows a typical example of a core-collapse supernova relative to its host galaxy. Image credit: NASA/ESA, The Hubble Key Project Team and The High-Z Supernova Search Team.

Stars that are fusing carbon (and up) appear to us today as red supergiants, and the brightest red supergiant as seen from Earth is Betelgeuse. Sometime in the next 100,000 years or so, Betelgeuse will go supernova. When it does, it will emit incredible amounts of radiation, become intrinsically brighter than a billion suns and and be easily visible from Earth during the day. But that’s not all.

The nebula of expelled matter created around Betelgeuse, which, for scale, is shown in the interior red circle. This structure, resembling flames emanating from the star, forms because the behemoth is shedding its material into space. Image credit: ESO / P. Kervella.

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