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Mysterious ‘Great Dimming’ by the giant star Betelgeuse finally explained


An artist’s impression of Betelgeuse surrounded by a gas nozzle.

IS SUN. Pavement

Before COVID-19 exploded and dominated global headlines, the possibility of nearby giant star Betelgeuse literally explodes caught his own share of attention. Betelgeuse went through a historically sudden and drastic period of attenuation over several months in late 2019 and early 2020, which led some to wonder if the giant star might be preparing to become a supernova. New research suggests it would be too early to write an obituary for the red super giant.

During the so-called great attenuation of Betelgeuse, the star was 10 times darker than usual, reports Miguel Montargès of the Observatoire de Paris, France and colleagues in a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

The study includes new analysis of images taken in 2019 and 2020 of the star, which is just over 700 light-years away from Earth, showing that Betelgeuse during its large attenuation was actually hidden by its own stellar breaths.

“We have directly witnessed the formation of so – called stellar dust,” said Montargès, who led the observation campaign using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Red supergiants are the largest stars in the universe, representing a stage in the evolution of giant stars, where they expand outwards, begin to cool and lose mass as they progress towards going out with a large explosion eventually .

The observations of Betelgeuse seem to show that the great attenuation was actually caused by just such a mass loss event. The star exhibited a lump of gas near an area on the southern part of the surface that developed a cold patch shortly thereafter. This cooling of the exhaust gas made it possible to condense to literal stardust.

“This process generated a dense southern cloud of dust that temporarily blocked much of Betelgeuse’s light, giving us what we saw as the large attenuation,” explained University of Washington astronomy Emily M. Levesque, who was not part of the research team, in a companion comment published in Nature.

In addition to explaining Betelgeuse’s bizarre behavior, scientists say the episode adds to our broader understanding of the universe.

“The dust emitted from cool evolutionary stars, such as the exhaust we have just witnessed, may continue to be the building blocks of terrestrial planets and life,” added Emily Cannon of the Belgian University of Leuven, who was also involved in the study. .

Dust clouds may seem like a disappointing end to the Betelgeuse melodrama, but there is good news for skywatchers who just want to see an epic show. That giant star is still expected to become a supernova sometime in the next 100,000 years, so keep an eye on the constellation Orion the Hunter, where you will find the Betelgeuse shining sharply (usually) like one of its shoulders.

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