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Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The latest astronomical furor clogging up the intertubes is that the star Betelgeuse is gonna explode, just like the Death Star did at the end of two of the Star Wars movies. And it's going to happen this year, and then we're going to have two suns just like on Tatooine! Then there will be a gamma ray POCKYCLIPS!!!!
Oh Nohs!!
Oh, and if you say "Betelgeuse" three times fast the star itself will materialize in your living room. Or at least, Michael Keaton will, which is almost as bad.

Deep. Cleansing. Breaths.

This is the problem that occurs when someone with a PhD in Astronomy talks to someone with a BA in Journalism without an interpreter.

Allow me to be C3P0.

Yes, Betelgeuse is going to go supernova, soon. "Soon", as an astronomer means it, meaning some time within the next million years or so. Actually in this case, likely within the next 10,000 years or so.

Yes, it is possible that this could, conceivably, occur some time within our own lifetimes. We simply don't know enough about stellar evolution to be able to predict that one way or another. It is even possible (more than 60 times more possible, in fact, than the possibility that it will occur in anyone's lifetime who is reading this) that Betelgeuse has already gone supernova, and we just don't know it yet because that information is creeping toward us at the speed of light. Betelgeuse is somewhere between 500 and 800 lightyears away, so if it happened to go supernova any time between the signing of the Magna Carta and the time I purchased my coffee this morning, we won't know about it for a while.

Yes, there is such a thing as a "Gamma-Ray Burster".  When an especially massive red giant star goes supernova, a directional stream of gamma rays is emitted which, if a nearby star and its planets happened to be in the stream, would basically irradiate all life on the planet's surface to death. This may have happened in earth's pre-history; some of earth's mass extinction events may have been due to GRBs. Yes, Betelgeuse may be massive enough to cause a Gamma Ray Burst. But its rotational axis is not pointed toward our solar system, and it is again between 500 and 800 light years away, so it simply isn't going to cause enough radiation to seriously impact life on earth. Our next mass-extinction event on earth will probably be boring old global warming.

Yes, when Betelgeuse goes supernova, it will be the second brightest object in our sky after the sun. We will be able to see it in broad daylight, at least for a couple of weeks. Which will be really cool. But we probably won't be around to see it.

If Michael Keaton happens to go supernova, well, then we're all toast.


  1. This is the problem that occurs when someone with a PhD in Astronomy talks to someone with a BA in Journalism without an interpreter.

  2. The comment box cut off my exclamations of LOL, HAHAHA! and other forms of telling you that was damn funny!