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"Betelgeuse" star in the Orion constellation will vanish from the skies tonight

Next week, the night sky will witness an extraordinary astronomical event, as Betelgeuse, one of the most luminous stars in the constellation Orion, temporarily vanishes from view. 

This unusual occurrence, set to happen on Monday night, December 11, is due to an asteroid, 319 Leona, passing directly in front of the star, causing it to disappear for approximately 12 seconds.

Rare occlusion 

Astronomical phenomena like this are not uncommon, but the upcoming event involving Betelgeuse is unique due to the specific alignment that will create a striking ‘ring of fire’ effect. 

Observers in Florida, parts of eastern Mexico, southern Europe, and northern Asia will be ideally positioned to witness this rare ‘occlusion.’ For those not in these regions, the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy will be streaming the event live from 8 PM Eastern on Monday.

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity 

This brief occlusion is more than just a spectacular sight; it presents a valuable scientific opportunity. Astronomers are eager to use this time to study the surface of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant sun, which has shown unusual dimming patterns over the past four years. 

Miguel Montargès, an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory, expressed excitement about this event, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The occlusion will enable scientists to examine the star’s outer region, which is normally overwhelmed by its bright core.

Critical new insights

This research is expected to provide insights into the ‘convective cells’ of Betelgeuse, which are the pathways for heated gas movement across the star. Montargès anticipates that the data gathered might also enhance understanding of how planetary systems, like our own solar system, form.

Gianluca Masi, director of the Virtual Telescope Project, pointed out that the event will also aid in studying asteroid 319 Leona. 

“These kinds of occultations,” Masi stated, “are very useful to constrain the shape of the asteroid involved.” He also noted that this occlusion is not only rare but symbolic of Betelgeuse’s eventual fate. “For a very short time, we will see the legendary Orion constellation without its famous, orange shoulder,” referencing the eventual supernova explosion of Betelgeuse.

Viewing the Betelgeuse event

Astronomers are meticulously tracking the trajectory of asteroid 319 Leona, with the occultation anticipated to occur around 8:17 PM Eastern Time. Those within the correct viewing line will have the chance to see Betelgeuse, typically the 10th-brightest star, fade from sight, an experience that can be enhanced with binoculars or a telescope.

Even for observers outside the optimal viewing areas, there’s still a chance to witness Betelgeuse dimming in an unusual manner. Residents of the Northern Hemisphere can find Betelgeuse in December by looking east about two hours after sunset, near Orion’s Belt.

For those seeking more information, the International Occultation Timing Association has dedicated a page to the event, complete with a downloadable Google Earth file to assist in tracking the visibility of the event globally.

More about Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse, often pronounced “Beetlejuice,” is a red supergiant star that has captivated astronomers and stargazers alike with its distinctive red hue and immense size. Located in the constellation of Orion, it’s one of the most easily recognizable stars in the night sky and has been a subject of fascination and study for centuries.

Astronomical significance

As discussed above, Betelgeuse holds a special place in astronomy due to its enormous size and relatively close proximity to Earth. It’s one of the largest stars visible to the naked eye, with a radius over 1,000 times that of the Sun. If placed at the center of our solar system, Betelgeuse would engulf the inner planets, reaching out nearly to the orbit of Jupiter.

Stellar characteristics

This celestial giant is a red supergiant, a stage in the lifecycle of a star that occurs after it has exhausted the hydrogen in its core. During this phase, the star expands significantly and cools down, giving it a distinctive red color. Betelgeuse’s surface temperature is around 3,500 Kelvin, much cooler than the Sun’s 5,778 Kelvin.

Variability and brightness

Betelgeuse is a variable star, meaning its brightness changes over time. These fluctuations in brightness are due to complex processes happening in its vast, bubbling surface. The star’s light can vary in a somewhat irregular pattern, making it a subject of interest for those studying stellar behavior.

Distance and visibility

Located approximately 642 light-years from Earth, Betelgeuse is relatively close in astronomical terms, allowing for detailed observation. Its brightness usually ranks it among the top ten brightest stars in the night sky, making it easy to spot even in areas with moderate light pollution.

Future supernova

One of the most intriguing aspects of Betelgeuse is its potential future as a supernova. Astronomers predict that within the next million years, Betelgeuse will exhaust its nuclear fuel and undergo a spectacular supernova explosion. This event will be so bright that it will be visible from Earth even during the day and will mark the end of this star’s life cycle.

Cultural and historical impact

Betelgeuse has also played a significant role in various cultures and mythologies. Its position in the constellation of Orion, a prominent figure in Greek mythology, and its visibility across the globe have made it a point of interest and storytelling for many civilizations.

In summary, Betelgeuse stands as a magnificent example of the wonders of the universe. Its immense size, changing brightness, and inevitable fate as a supernova continue to make it a subject of both scientific study and popular fascination. As we gaze upon this red supergiant, we are reminded of the vastness and beauty of the cosmos.

More about the Orion constellation

As discussed above, the Orion constellation, one of the most recognizable and prominent constellations in the night sky, captivates observers across the globe. Named after the Greek mythological hunter, Orion, this constellation not only boasts significant astronomical importance but also holds a rich cultural and mythological heritage.

Astronomical features of Orion

Orion is home to some of the brightest stars in the night sky. Betelgeuse, the protagonist of this article, marks Orion’s right shoulder. Bellatrix serves as his left shoulder. Rigel, a brilliant blue-white star, represents Orion’s left foot, and Saiph constitutes his right knee. These stars form the distinct hourglass shape of the constellation.

A striking feature of Orion is his belt, comprised of three aligned stars: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Below the belt, the Orion Nebula (M42), a vibrant, star-forming region, dazzles astronomers and astrophotographers alike. This nebula, visible to the naked eye under dark skies, is a popular target for telescopic observation.

Orion in culture and mythology

In Greek mythology, Orion is depicted as a formidable hunter, often associated with tales of bravery and prowess. Various cultures have their own interpretations of this constellation, each adding to its rich narrative tapestry.

The stars of Orion have been significant in various ancient civilizations, from the Egyptians, who associated the constellation with Osiris, the god of the afterlife, to the Native American cultures, where it held various meanings and stories.

In summary, Orion continues to be a source of wonder and inspiration. Its prominent place in the night sky makes it a gateway for amateur astronomers and a subject of ongoing study for professionals. Whether it’s through the lens of science, culture, or mythology, the Orion constellation remains an enduring and captivating presence in our night sky.


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