From The Astronomer’s Telegram:
Edward F. Guinan and Richard J. Wasatonic (Villanova University)
on 20 Jan 2020; 17:50 UT
We report further on the recent unusual dimming of the red supergiant Betelgeuse (alpha Ori) reported previously in ATel #13341 and ATel #13365. We continue to carry out V-band and Wing TiO and near-IR photometry of the star. Since our last report, Betelgeuse has continued to gradually decrease in brightness. Our most recent photometry secured on 17.25 UT and 18.20 UT January 2020 yields: V = +1.494 mag and 1.506 mag, respectively. This is more than ~0.2 mag fainter than previously reported in ATel #13365 on 22.25 UT Dec. 2019. However during the last week or so the decline in brightness of the star may be slowing. As reported by Brian Skiff of Lowell Observatory (priv. commun.) visual estimates of Betelgeuse are available as far back as about 180-years ago. Systematic visual measures of the star have been made by AAVSO observers since the 1920s. More precise photoelectric photometry began nearly 100 yrs ago but systematic (mostly unpublished) photometry of Betelgeuse commenced about 40-years ago at Villanova Observatory by Scott Wacker and Guinan. Betelgeuse is now nearly as faint as (the slightly variable) B2 star Bellatrix (V ~+1.62 mag). Bellatrix (gamma Ori) is about 5Â° west of Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. The analysis of the calibrated Wing photometry (Wing 1992: JAAVSO 21, 42) returns measures of the temperature (via calibrated Wing TiO- and near-IR (B-C) color-indices) as well as estimates of bolometric magnitude (m-bol). The Wing intermediate band A-filter is used to measure the temperature-sensitive TiO 719-nm (gamma; 0, 0) molecular band. The B (750-nm) and C (1020.4-nm) filters are centered on relatively line-free stellar continuum regions. The C-band filter measures have been calibrated with K-M stars with bolometric magnitudes returning proxy measures of the apparent bolometric magnitude (m-bol) (see Wasatonic et al. 2015: PASP, 127, 1010). During the 25-years of V-band / Wing Near-IR photometry, Betelgeuse is currently the coolest and least luminous yet observed. Since September 2019, the star’s temperature has decreased by ~100 K while its luminosity (inferred from the C-band/m-bol observations) has diminished by nearly 25%. At face value using R’/R = [(T’/T)^4 / L’/L]^0.5 (where R’, T’ and L’ are the current values of stellar Radius, Temperature & Luminosity), this implies an increase of the star’s radius of ~9%. However, as pointed out by others, the current fainting episode could also arise from expelled, cooling gas/dust partially obscuring the star. The recent changes defined by our V-band/Wing photometry seem best explained from changes in the envelop-outer convection atmosphere of this pulsating, unstable supergiant. If these recent light changes are due to an extra-large amplitude light pulse on the ~420-day period, then the next mid-light minimum is expected during late January/early February, 2020. If Betelgeuse continues to dim after that time then other possibilities will have to be considered. The unusual behavior of Betelgeuse should be closely watched.
Back when I wanted to be an astronomer when I was 11 years old, it was assumed that most aged stars became novas but only a few became supernovas. My vague impression is that in the half century since then that the standard theory is that most stars go supernova, but what do I know?
Betelgeuse (the origin of the name of the movie Beetlejuice) is 650 light years away. It is assumed that when it finally does go supernova that it will be brighter than all objects in our sky other than the sun and the moon, and possibly brighter than the moon. It is expected to cast shadows at night on Earth for about 3 years. Whether it will go supernova in tens of thousands of years or real soon now is difficult to forecast.
The famous Crab Nebula remnant supernova is about 10 times further away. Light from its supernova, which could be seen in the sky during the day, was first recorded by the Chinese imperial astronomer on July 4, 1054 AD. From Wikipedia:
The nebula lies in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, at a distance of about 2.0 kiloparsecs (6,500 ly) from Earth. It has a diameter of 3.4 parsecs (11 ly), corresponding to an apparent diameter of some 7 arcminutes, and is expanding at a rate of about 1,500 kilometres per second (930 mi/s), or 0.5% of the speed of light.
So at that rate it would take about 130,000 years for Betelgeuse’s nebula to reach Earth after it went supernova, by which point it would be highly dissipated.
On the other hand:
At the center of the nebula lies the Crab Pulsar, a neutron star 28–30 kilometres (17–19 mi) across with a spin rate of 30.2 times per second, which emits pulses of radiation from gamma rays to radio waves. At X-ray and gamma ray energies above 30 keV, the Crab Nebula is generally the brightest persistent source in the sky, with measured flux extending to above 10 TeV.
I don’t know what that means but it sounds concerning.