According to the team of researchers at the Australian National University (ANU), the results change a few important things about our favorite red giant.
“The actual physical size of Betelgeuse was a mystery – previous studies suggested that it could be larger than the orbit of Jupiter,” says astronomer László Molnár of the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary.
“Our results indicate that Betelgeuse makes up only two-thirds of that, with a radius 750 times the radius of the sun.”
Betelgeuse has always been a bit difficult to depict with great accuracy. Forget the textbook picture of a star spinning neatly as a relatively smooth sphere and imagine something that looks more like a pulsating speck with fuzzy edges.
In 1920, interference patterns were used between its light waves to give an angular diameter – the width of Betelgeuse’s starlight as it hangs in our sky – of nearly 47 milliseconds.
Based on an assumed distance of about 180 light years, the red star was originally believed to have a diameter roughly two and a half times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
Since then, there have been many more attempts to pull a metaphorical tape measure around Betelgeuse’s bum.
Revisions to its location in recent years have pushed it further back 724 light-years away, where those 47 milliseconds represented roughly 1,300 times the Sun’s diameter. A diameter at which Betelgeuse would swallow planets roughly in Jupiter’s orbit.
Such numbers, including numerous engravings in its total mass, paint a picture of an oversized star rapidly approaching a stage in its life where it theoretically collapses and explodes in a glowing ball of astonishment that would be visible to the naked eye.
The star’s unexpected drop in luminosity over the past few years even made excited whispers about whether it was some kind of Betelgeuse death whistle, and turned all of us stargazers into creepy relatives in a wealthy aunt’s hospital bed.
It is now believed that clouds of dust were responsible for at least one of the events. And the other one seems to show how healthy our old aunt Betelgeuse is.
“We found that the second minor event was likely due to the star’s pulsations,” says ANU astrophysicist Meridith Joyce, who led the study.
Pulsations like the one seen in Betelgeuse are typically the result of pressure waves flowing through the burning innards of a star. Our own sun has waves all over our bodies that tell a lot about its makeup deep inside.
Using information gathered with the space-based Solar Mass Ejection Imager prior to Betelgeuse’s recent decline in luminosity, the research team developed models of the star’s activity to get a better sense of how close it actually was to retirement.
“Right now, helium is burning at its core, which means it is nowhere near to exploding,” says Joyce.
“We could look at about 100,000 years before an explosion happens.”
The results also allowed the researchers to deduce the giant’s radius and shave a third of its previous circumference. Also, based on this new number, Betelgeuse can’t be more than 700 light years away.
“Our results show that we are only 530 light years away – 25 percent closer than previously assumed,” says Molnár.
Look, we’re all a little bit disappointed. It’s been four centuries since a supernova has been seen with the naked eye, and we owe ourselves a decent stellar burial.
Now that we know Betelgeuse is even closer to us than we thought, it’s sure to be a damn display if it ever breaks down. If you even think about the new seating arrangements, in 530 light years we will still not be close enough to feel the heat of its radiation.
For anything that happens to a scientist in AD 100,000, those front row seats are sure to be an opportunity.
“It’s still a big deal when a supernova goes off. And this is our closest candidate. It gives us a rare opportunity to study what happens to such stars before they explode, ”says Joyce.
This research was published in The astrophysical journal.
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