Science

‘Watching Stellar Evolution In Real Time”: When Bettlegeuse Blew Its Top

“We’ve never before seen a huge mass ejection of the surface of a star. We are left with something going on that we don’t completely understand. It’s a totally new phenomenon that we can observe directly and resolve surface details with Hubble. We’re watching stellar evolution in real time.”

 Andrea Dupree of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This illustration plots changes in the brightness of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse, following the titanic mass ejection of a large piece of its visible surface. The escaping material cooled to form a cloud of dust that temporarily made the star look dimmer, as seen from Earth. This unprecedented stellar convulsion disrupted the monster star’s 400-day-long oscillation period that astronomers had measured for more than 200 years. The interior may now be jiggling like a plate of gelatin dessert. Image: ILLUSTRATION: NASA, ESA, Elizabeth Wheatley (STScI)

The bright red supergiant star Betelgeuse blew its top in 2019, losing a substantial part of its visible surface and producing a gigantic Surface Mass Ejection (SME). 

Our Sun routinely blows off parts of its tenuous outer atmosphere, the corona, in an event known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). But the Betelgeuse SME blasted off 400 billion times as much mass as a typical CME.

Astronomers have been analysing data of the vent from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and several other observatories. This includes new spectroscopic and imaging data from the STELLA robotic observatory, the Fred L. Whipple Observatory’s Tillinghast Reflector Echelle Spectrograph (TRES)NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory spacecraft (STEREO-A)NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

The blast was possibly caused by a convective plume, more than a million miles across, bubbling up from deep inside the star. It produced shocks and pulsations that blasted off the chunk of the photosphere leaving the star with a large cool surface area under the dust cloud that was produced by the cooling piece of photosphere. Betelgeuse is now struggling to recover from this injury.

Weighing roughly several times as much as our Moon, the fractured piece of photosphere sped off into space and cooled to form a dust cloud that blocked light from the star as seen by Earth observers. The dimming, which began in late 2019 and lasted for a few months, was easily noticeable even by backyard observers watching the star change brightness. One of the brightest stars in the sky, Betelgeuse is easily found in the right shoulder of the constellation Orion.

 The supergiant’s 400-day pulsation rate is now gone, perhaps at least temporarily. For almost 200 years astronomers have measured this rhythm as evident in changes in Betelgeuse’s brightness variations and surface motions. Its disruption attests to the ferocity of the blowout.

Betelgeuse is now so huge that if it replaced the Sun at the center of our solar system, its outer surface would extend past the orbit of Jupiter.

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope may be able to detect the ejected material in infrared light as it continues moving away from the star.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, D.C.

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