Late last year, news broke that the star Betelgeuse was fading significantly, ultimately dropping to around 40Â percent of its usual brightness. The activity fueled popular speculation that the red supergiant would soon explode as a massive supernova. But astronomers have more benign theories to explain the starâs dimming behavior. And scientists at the University of Washington and Lowell Observatory believe they have support for one of them: Betelgeuse isnât dimming because itâs about to explode â itâs just dusty.
In a paper accepted to Astrophysical Journal Letters, Emily Levesque, a UW associate professor of astronomy, and Philip Massey, an astronomer with Lowell Observatory, report that observations of Betelgeuse taken Feb. 14 at the Flagstaff, Arizona, observatory allowed them to calculate the average surface temperature of the star. They discovered that Betelgeuse is significantly warmer than expected if the recent dimming was caused by a cooling of the starâs surface.
The new calculations lend support to the theory that Betelgeuse â as many red supergiant stars are prone to do â has likely sloughed off some material from its outer layers. Levesque said:
âWe see this all the time in red supergiants, and itâs a normal part of their life cycle. Red supergiants will occasionally shed material from their surfaces, which will condense around the star as dust. As it cools and dissipates, the dust grains will absorb some of the light heading toward us and block our view.â
It is still true: Astronomers expect Betelgeuse to explode as a supernova within the next 100,000 years when its core collapses. But the starâs dimming, which began in October, wasnât necessarily a sign of an imminent supernova, according to Massey. One theory was that newly formed dust was absorbing some of Betelgeuseâs light. Another posited that huge convection cells within Betelgeuse had drawn hot material up to its surface, where it had cooled before falling back into the interior. Massey said:
âA simple way to tell between these possibilities is to determine the effective surface temperature of Betelgeuse.â
Measuring a starâs temperature is no straightforward task. Scientists canât just point a thermometer at a star and get a reading. But by looking at the spectrum of light emanating from a star, astronomers can calculate its temperature. Massey added:
âEmily and I had been in contact about Betelgeuse, and we both agreed that the obvious thing to do was to get a spectrum. I already had observing time scheduled on the 4.3-meter Lowell Discovery Telescope, and I knew if I played around for a bit I would be able to get a good spectrum despite Betelgeuse still being one of the brightest stars in the sky.â
The light from bright stars is often too strong for a detailed spectrum, but Massey employed a filter that effectively âdampenedâ the signal so they could mine the spectrum for a particular signature: the absorbance of light by molecules of titanium oxide. Titanium oxide can form and accumulate in the upper layers of large, relatively cool stars like Betelgeuse, according to Levesque. It absorbs certain wavelengths of light, leaving telltale âscoopsâ in the spectrum of red supergiants that scientists can use to determine the starâs surface temperature.
By their calculations, Betelgeuseâs average surface temperature on Feb. 14 was about 3,325Â°C, or 6,017Â°F. Thatâs only 50-100 degrees Celsius cooler than the temperature that a team â including Massey and Levesque â had calculated as Betelgeuseâs surface temperature in 2004, years before its dramatic dimming began. These findings cast doubt that Betelgeuse is dimming because one of the starâs massive convection cells had brought hot gas from the interior to the surface, where it had cooled. Many stars have these convection cells, including our own Sun. They resemble the surface of a pot of boiling water, said Levesque.
But whereas the convection cells on our Sun are numerous and relatively small â roughly the size of Texas or Mexico â red supergiants like Betelgeuse, which are larger, cooler and have weaker gravity, sport just three or four massive convection cells that stretch over much of their surfaces. If one of these massive cells had risen to Betelgeuseâs surface, Levesque and Massey would have registered a substantially greater decrease in temperature than what they saw between 2004 and 2020. Messey said:
âA comparison with our 2004 spectrum showed immediately that the temperature hadnât changed significantly. We knew the answer had to be dust.â
Astronomers have observed clouds of dust around other red supergiants, and additional observations may reveal similar clutter around Betelgeuse. Over the past few weeks, Betelgeuse has actually started to brighten again, albeit slightly. Even if the recent dimming wasnât an indication that the star would soon explode, to Levesque and Massey, thatâs no reason to stop looking. Levesque said:
âRed supergiants are very dynamic stars. The more we can learn about their normal behavior â temperature fluctuations, dust, convection cells â the better we can understand them and recognize when something truly unique, like a supernova, might happen.â
Provided by: James Urton, University of WashingtonÂ [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]
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