When Betelgeuse goes supernova, what will it look like from Earth?
If you stargaze on a clear winter night, it’s hard to miss the constellation Orion the Hunter, with his shield in one arm and the other arm stretched high to the heavens. A bright red dot called Betelgeuse marks Orion’s shoulder, and this star's strange dimming has captivated skygazers for thousands of years. Aboriginal Australians may have even worked it into their oral histories.
Today, astronomers know that Betelgeuse varies in brightness because it’s a dying, red supergiant star with a diameter some 700 times larger than our Sun. Someday, the star will explode as a supernova and give humanity a celestial show before disappearing from our night sky forever.
That eventual explosion explains why astronomers got excited when Betelgeuse started dimming dramatically in 2019. The 11th-brightest star dropped in magnitude two-and-a-half-fold. Could Betelgeuse have reached the end of its life? While unlikely, the idea of a supernova appearing in Earth’s skies caught the public’s attention.
And now new simulations are giving astronomers a more precise idea of what humans will see when Betelgeuse does eventually explode sometime in the next 100,000 years.
Supernova seen from Earth
With all the speculation about what a Betelgeuse supernova would look like from Earth, University of California, Santa Barbara, astronomer Andy Howell got tired of the back-of-the-envelope calculations. He put the problem to a pair of UCSB graduate students, Jared Goldberg and Evan Bauer, who created more precise simulations of the star’s dying days.
The astronomers say there’s still uncertainty over how the supernova would play out, but they were able to augment their accuracy using observations taken during Supernova 1987A, the closest known star to explode in centuries.
Life on Earth will be unharmed. But that doesn’t mean it will go unnoticed. Goldberg and Bauer found that when Betelgeuse explodes, it will shine as bright as the half-Moon — nine times fainter than the full Moon — for more than three months.
“All this brightness would be concentrated into one point,” Howell says. “So it would be this incredibly intense beacon in the sky that would cast shadows at night, and that you could see during the daytime. Everyone all over the world would be curious about it, because it would be unavoidable.”