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Unixronin is Alaric, the Renaissance Man, Samh-ildánach, Man of Many Sciences, Brother Railgun of Reason, Episkopos of the Discordian Order of NoH, Mystic Zen Biker, Pasha of Atomic Fusion, Czar of Quantum Mechanics, Offender of the Faith, Grand Dragon of Poon Appreciation, technomage, Aspie, loner, technical thug, intermittent vr00mist, shottist, polymath, a lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed, slave to cats, ignostic, occasional poet, sometime artist and sculptor, former wrestler of seals, eclectic swordsman, futurist, minarchist, novice cyborg.
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Habemus plus vis computatoris quam Deus - Interesting times in the sky
Ramblings of a Unix ronin
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Interesting times in the sky

The red supergiant variable star Betelgeuse, estimated to be 530 light years from Earth (although measurements by different means vary from 495LY to 640LY; 530LY is considered the "best compromise" measurement) is the ninth brightest star in the sky, the ninth largest star known to exist in the universe, and has the third largest apparent size as observed from Earth of any known star, after the Sun and R Doradus, which is almost three times closer to Earth.  R Doradus is believed to lie 200 +/- 25 LY from Earth, and has an angular diameter of approximately 0.057 arcseconds, making it roughly 370 times the diameter of the Sun, or about 3.46 AU, where one AU is the average radius of Earth's orbit.  Placed where the Sun is, R Doradus would contain all of the inner planets and most of the main asteroid belt.  Betelgeuse's angular diameter of just under 0.055 arcseconds makes it almost three times larger, 950 to 1000 times larger than the Sun (8.8 to 9.3AU, or roughly to the orbit of Saturn).  It is one of only about a dozen stars whose apparent size is so large it has been imaged telescopically as a visible disk rather than a point.

Why is this important?

Well, you see, Betelgeuse has been shrinking continuously since 1993, at an increasing rate.  By June 2009, it had shrunk 15% from its size as measured in 1993.

But wait!  There's more.  It is rumored, though I have been unable to find any reliable confirmation of the source (which is claimed to be first-hand) that the latest observations from Mauna Kea show that Betelgeuse is now shrinking so fast it is no longer round.  (Due to conservation of angular momentum, when a massive star collapses gravitationally, it collapses faster at the poles, becoming increasingly oblate — flattened — as its final collapse accelerates.)

What does this mean?

Well, briefly, what it means — if true — is that Betelgeuse could be within as little as weeks of a Type II (core collapse) supernova.  (Astronomers have considered for some time that Betelgeuse has the potential to go supernova any time in the next thousand years or so.  "Any time" may just turn out to be rather sooner than expected.)

IF this happens, not to put too fine a point on it, it will almost undoubtedly be among the most dramatic astronomical events ever observed by human eyes.  A type II supernova can briefly outshine an entire galaxy ... and this one will be only a little over five hundred LY away.  The supernova that created the Crab Nebula, SN 1054, was bright enough to see in daylight for 23 days, and remained visible for 653 days ... and it was 6,300 LY away.  Betelgeuse is almost 12 times closer, and can be expected to appear around 140 times brighter by virtue of that alone.  And as noted at the beginning of this post, Betelgeuse is the ninth largest star known to exist in the universe.

If the rumor is true, this is going to be one hell of a show, and we'll have a front-row seat.  (Relatively speaking.)

(Don't panic, though.  It is not believed that a Betelgeuse supernova would present any threat to Earth, and we're not anywhere near Betelgeuse's axis of rotation and therefore in no danger from a gamma-ray burst.)


Clarifications:

When we say Betelgeuse "is within a few weeks of" going supernova, what we really mean is the light front from the speculative supernova is a few weeks from reaching Earth.  If the rumored Mauna Kea observations are both true and correct, we can infer that in fact, Betelgeuse already went supernova about 530-540 years ago, and the light from the final stages of collapse leading up to the supernova are just now reaching Earth.

It should also be observed, as Dan Neely points out in comments, that the brightness estimates in the doomers.us article are wildly exaggerated.  Supernova SN1054 is estimated to have been around apparent magnitude -6; the 11.9:1 distance ratio alone between Betelgeuse and the Crab Nebula would be expected to put a Betelgeuse supernova in the -11 to -12 range.  Supernova SN1006, however, is estimated to have reached apparent magnitude -7.5, despite being a thousand light years further away than SN1054; if SN1054 and SN1006 had the same absolute luminosity, SN1006's apparent brightness would have been only around three quarters that of SN1054, whereas in fact it is believed to have been around four times brighter.  This would imply that SN1006's absolute luminosity was around 5.2 times higher than SN1054's.  If we assume that the speculative supernova SN2010A is no brighter in absolute luminosity than SN1006, its distance means it could approach apparent magnitude -14, about 2.5 times brighter than the full Moon.  The Sun's magnitude -26.7, though, is FAR out of reach.

(As also pointed out by Dan, one also cannot directly compare Betelgeuse to SN1006, as SN1006 was a Type 1a supernova.  Nevertheless, it serves as a useful yardstick for this purpose.)



Update (finally, solid data!)

20100601-22:02:  However much fun it would have been to watch the light show, it seems finally a reputable source, the Bad Astronomy Blog on discovermagazine.com, has weighed in.  And, as most of us expected from the start, the original rumor is just that and nothing more:  An unsubstantiated rumor.  There's no actual new observations of Betelgeuse that would suggest it's any closer to going supernova than we already believed it was 20 years ago.  "No BOOM! today."

I can't say I'm surprised, but I'll admit to being a little disappointed.  A relatively nearby supernova would have been a truly memorable event.

Ah, well.  Just remember — "There's always a BOOM! tomorrow.  Sooner or later ... BOOM!"

This entry was originally posted at http://unixronin.dreamwidth.org/715135.html. That post currently has comment count unavailable comments.
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Current Music: Dissonance :: Dissonance :: Wait (For The Sky) (04:09)

Comments
jhetley From: jhetley Date: May 29th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Keep your eyes on the sky . . .
From: danneely Date: May 29th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

The post on doomers.us appears to be engaging in massive brightness inflation

Wikipedia lists SN1054 as mag -6. The distance differential gives an extra 5.3 magnitudes. That means before correcting for differing levels of dust/gas in the path (call a PHD) it only goes up to -11.3. That's about 4x dimmer than the -12.92 magnitude full moon, and 2 million times dimmer than the sun.

IIRC Type II SNs are fairly variable in luminosity, but while that might get us to brighter than the full moon it won't be anywhere near the suns luminosity.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The post on doomers.us appears to be engaging in massive brightness inflation

Yeah, their math seems .... suspect, shall we say. The Wikipedia article says the expected apparent brightness of a Type II supernova of Betelgeuse is currently estimated at around -12, which corresponds fairly closely to that math.  We've never to our knowledge observed a star this big go supernova; -13 is potentially within reach, -26 would be, to say the least, improbable.
jhetley From: jhetley Date: May 29th, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The post on doomers.us appears to be engaging in massive brightness inflation

Quite possibly visible in the daytime sky, none the less.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The post on doomers.us appears to be engaging in massive brightness inflation

Oh, very definitely.
From: danneely Date: May 29th, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The post on doomers.us appears to be engaging in massive brightness inflation

I'd be extremely easy to see during the day. -12 would be about as bright as the moon when 50% illuminated but only a point source. On a clear day Venus and Jupiter are relatively easy to spot if you know where to look.


Hint: Unless you normally have hazy skies, you want to try this when they're near the moon (ideally within the 7* FoV of a pair of 7x50 binoculars).
pauamma From: pauamma Date: May 29th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Does "any time in the next thousand years or so" refer to when the event will happen, or when it'll be visible from Earth? (I need to know whether I have to live to 1000 or to 1500. :-) )
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
It refers to when it will be observable from Earth. To put it another way, IF the rumored Mauna Kea observations are both true and correct, then we can infer that Betelgeuse actually went supernova about 530 years ago.
polaris93 From: polaris93 Date: May 29th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Don't panic, though. It is not believed that a Betelgeuse supernova would present any threat to Earth, and we're not anywhere near Betelgeuse's axis of rotation and therefore in no danger from a gamma-ray burst.)

On the other hand, people being what they are, there will probably be enormous panics over it. Panics we can blame on Obama. ;-) (Hey, the liberals blamed everything from the Big Bang to the Big Rip on Dubya, so why not return the favor?)

BTW, love your user-name! What did you say you hacked? ;-)
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
BTW, love your user-name! What did you say you hacked? ;-)
Phrased like that, I'm not sure I should answer. ;)
polaris93 From: polaris93 Date: May 29th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh. Seriously, it's a marvelous user-name. XD
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Basically what it refers to is that I'm a Unix hacker who can't find work. I mainly focus on Solaris, Linux, and OpenBSD, but I've fiddled with other Unix flavors in the past, as well as doing some work on VAX-VMS and some on operating systems you've almost certainly never even heard of.
polaris93 From: polaris93 Date: May 29th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've never been able to adapt Unix to my own computers, but my literary partner prefers it as his own platform, and has been using it since forever for just that purpose. I know it's a lot easier to use, with orders of magnitude fewer glitches, than any version of Windows. Wish I were more skilled at programming and reworking platforms than I am, but that's the breaks. {sigh}
glitch25 From: glitch25 Date: May 29th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Something's going to happen. Something wonderful.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 08:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
This comment is officially made of pure win. :)
databeast From: databeast Date: May 30th, 2010 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
That was pretty much the imagine that came into my head too..

...seriously, we don't need to be a bunch of pre-renaissance lunatics to go all loopy about something like this,it's still going to make the entire world stand up, take notice, and proceed to interpret it according to their personal reality tunnel a thousand times over..

how long you reckon before the story starts popping up in the mainstream press? and everyone starts giving us their interpretations of the social implications of the 'end of the right shoulder of Orion' (which less face it, there totally will be - stuff like this is going to work the Apocalyptarians up into a frenzy better better than a Datura & Meth enema)

unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 30th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
My assumption is that IF the rumored observations are true, they ought to start showing up in Science, Nature et al fairly soon, and once they start popping up there I'd expect the mainstream press to be all over them. It's also possible, of course, that the entire thing is a hoax ... but if so, it at least had to be started by someone with a pretty decent understanding of stellar mechanics. Which to me kinda suggests it's possible that it did in fact come out of Mauna Kea, though it's by no means conclusive.

On the other hand, it's such a significant observation that if it doesn't appear in pretty short order in the major science journals, we can pretty safely write it off as a hoax.
(Deleted comment)
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 29th, 2010 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yup. It's one of those areas where you look back ten years later and realize that now, you at least have a better idea of how much you still don't know.
From: danneely Date: May 30th, 2010 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)
SN 1987A was from a blue supergiant, not the normal red supergiant progenitor of a type 2 SN like Betelgeuse.

Astrophysicists are still having trouble working out a model to explain that. Its peak luminosity was also 3-4 magnitudes lower than expected while at it also fell off much slower in luminosity than expected.
johnkzin From: johnkzin Date: May 29th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC) (Link)


"Boom. Sooner or later ... boom!"
bluknight From: bluknight Date: May 30th, 2010 11:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Are we going to call this the "Ivanova Supernova", then? Heh.

Thanks to databeast for pointing me to the post.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: May 31st, 2010 02:02 am (UTC) (Link)
If it happens, it'll probably get designated SN2010 or possibly SN2010A.

Officially, that is.

Unofficially? I'm going with "The Earth-Shattering KABOOM! of 2010." :)
From: littlehippie87 Date: June 2nd, 2010 01:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Or, on the heels of the naming trends of other phenomena this year, "Supernovacalpyse 2010." I wonder if the liquor stores will have lines as long as they did for Snowpocalypse here in DC...
unixronin From: unixronin Date: June 2nd, 2010 02:00 am (UTC) (Link)
Unfortunately for stargazers and astronomers everywhere, the evidence is looking stronger and stronger that the original rumor that began all this speculation and calculation was exactly that, and nothing more - a rumor.

Oh, well. I was looking forward to the light show.
From: speeedy23 Date: June 1st, 2010 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Quantification

I see a certain acceptance of unverified assumptions here.
There is speculation as to the nature of the stellar collapse. There is complacency in that the big gun is aimed away from the earth...what percentage of the total radiation is emitted at other angles from the poles? What is the total radiation output? What confidence level do you have that the previously observed data will bound this event?
From what I am reading, the facts seem to be that a very nearby star is shrinking at an accelerating rate and becoming oblate. That is very worrisome.
I do agree that panic would not be helpful. There is very little you could do to protect yourself from a severe gamma wavefront, other than somehow being able to interpose a large amount of shielding (i.e., deep ocean immersion), which is not practical. But on an intellectual level, the idea that a supernova about 500 light years distant is a non-event does not seem to be a given to me.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: June 2nd, 2010 12:13 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Quantification

There is speculation as to the nature of the stellar collapse.
Yes. We don't know for certain yet whether Betelgeuse has entered an irreversible collapse, or whether the alleged Mauna Kea contact misunderstood what he saw. I've been continuing to watch the scientific news sources and I've yet to see anything confirmed beyond the continuous shrinkage from 1993 to 2009.

There is complacency in that the big gun is aimed away from the earth...what percentage of the total radiation is emitted at other angles from the poles?
It's not complacency. We're sure enough of Betelgeuse's orientation that we can say with good confidence that its poles are aimed about 80 degrees away from us, which would put us well out of the way of a GRB. (Not that we're 100% certain what the mechanism of a GRB is yet, but according to the best working theories, GRBs are a highly directional polar event associated with only extremely violent events.) The rest of the energy emission from such an event would be no threat to us at our 500-600LY distance; yes, a Type II supernova of Betelgeuse would be an extremely violent event, but it's still subject to the inverse-square law. If we were only a few light-years away, or if we were, say, 50LY away and in line with one of the poles, we'd have cause to worry. From here, it'll be a spectacular show, but we can categorically say that we'll be in no danger from it.
What confidence level do you have that the previously observed data will bound this event?
Well, that depends how you mean the question.  This is an extremely large and massive star, and is likely to be one of the more energetic supernovae ever observed when it finally does go. But it's not going to be the six orders of magnitude more violent than any previously known supernova that would be necessary for it to threaten us. As previously stated, the original doomers.us article grossly overstates the possible intensity of the event.
From what I am reading, the facts seem to be that a very nearby star is shrinking at an accelerating rate and becoming oblate.
Well, "very nearby" is a relative thing. Barnard's star is very nearby in stellar terms, at 6LY. So is Proxima Centauri at 4.2LY, and Wolf 359 at just under 7.8LY and Lalande 21159 at around 8.3LY should probably qualify too. They're just down the street. By the time you get out to 14, 15, 16LY, there's quite a few stars out there and you're wandering over to the next block. By comparison, at over 500LY, never mind the stellar neighborhood, Betelgeuse isn't even in town. It's somewhere over in the next county.

Edited at 2010-06-02 12:15 am (UTC)
unixronin From: unixronin Date: June 2nd, 2010 12:24 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Quantification

Oh, and in any case, there has so far been no confirmation of the original report from any reliable source, so the odds of the report being acfurate are shrinking faster than Betelgeuse. ;) So until and unless there is official confirmation that final collapse appears imminent, I wouldn't worry about it anyway.

Kind of a shame, really; it would have been a hell of a spectacle.



(Bah. Typos'R'Us tonight.)

Edited at 2010-06-02 12:24 am (UTC)
zeekar From: zeekar Date: June 2nd, 2010 03:26 am (UTC) (Link)

Interesting.

Congrats on being Reddited. Too bad - but, as you say, unsurprising - that this turned out to be BS.
From: kuncen Date: June 5th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thanks for writing this article

Hello,

I did a writeup about Betelgeuse and our strange fascination with doomsday scenarios at TalkingSkull.com, and I referenced this article. Check it out at the URL below:
http://talkingskull.com/article/oh-my-god-were-all-gonna-die
unixronin From: unixronin Date: June 5th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thanks for writing this article

Personally, I know very few people who ever thought it was going to be any kind of doomsday scenario (though a few people seem to be stubbornly clinging to the idea, and are trying to drag it back from the grasp of facts by any means necessary). I don't understand why; there are far more serious risks to us.

For instance, with our current dependence upon electronics, the electrical power grid, and and satellite services, another Carrington event — in which a coronal mass ejection directly strikes the Earth, an event which is really only a matter of time — would be catastrophic. It would probably destroy many, perhaps all, of our satellite constellation, and potentially wreck electrical grids worldwide. Fortunately, we would have enough advance warning to be able, as a last resort, to shut down everything non-essential before it hit, but there would be very little we could do to protect our satellites.

Still, it's frankly understandable why we focus on extreme threats. We are hardwired to pay attention to imminent threats as a simple matter of survival. It is the threat you ignore that kills you. To go from there to actively seeking out threats to worry about, though, is ... bizarre. I don't understand the doomseekers.


To me, the "Oh wow" aspect of the eventual Betelgeuse supernova is the idea of a supernova happening right in our back yard, too far away to harm us, but close enough to see with the naked eye and for amateur atronomers to observe in detail with quite modest equipment. Most of us suspected right from the very first that the report would turn out to be nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor. But there was always just that small chance that the observation was real. It would be totally cool for it to happen right now; it would be the spectacle of a lifetime.

Still, many astronomers say Betelgeuse is still expected to go supernova any time in the next thousand years or so.  It COULD still happen in any of our lifetimes.
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