Posted by: David | February 13, 2011

Betelgeuse Goes Supernova

Wait for it …

Betelgeuse is at the upper left, marked with a cross.

It’s a star whose name you might know from the movie Beetlejuice. It’s a star you’ve looked at many times, if you have ever looked at the night sky in winter. (If you haven’t then you should. It’s beautiful and amazing.) Anyway, it’s in the constellation Orion, a hunter/warrior of Greek mythology. It’s the easiest constellation to recognize.  You can’t miss the 3 bright stars that make up the hunter’s belt. Betelgeuse is pictured as the hunter’s left (or right) shoulder, depending on whose olde illustration you like. Betelgeuse was noticed by Ptolemy 2,000 years ago for its reddish color. You can see this color with the naked eye. Its ruddiness, like that of the planet Mars, probably had something to do with the constellation’s assigned aspect of hunter/warrior. Orion is not quite in the ecliptic, the path traced through the sky by the sun, but just under it. Orion is a helpful ‘guide constellation too. If you draw a line from the top belt star, through Betelgeuse, you’ll intersect Gemini’s stars Castor and Pollux. Follow the line of the belt stars upward and you’ll hit Taurus, then the Pleaides, down the belt hits Sirius, the brightest star. Orion is visible everywhere in the world.

Anyway, Betelgeuse is what they call a ‘red giant’. It’s a geriatric star and is close to using up all its star fuel. Just like us, when stars get old they get all swollen and ruddy, and shed vast bubbles of gas into space. This is what makes us old folks so unpleasant sometimes. Seriously though, in the mid-1800s, astronomer Sir John Herschel published that Betelgeuse’s brightness had a cyclical fluctuation. That got scientists interested and they’ve been paying close attention ever since. It’s pretty amazing how much they can figure out about an object that is so alarmingly far away: about 650 light years. That’s about 23,000 trillion miles, which rounds  up to infinity-zillion. This is one big reason why ET hasn’t visited us yet. Everything’s so far away in this universe.

And it really is a red GIANT. It’s almost 20 the mass of our nice hot little sun, but over 2000 times the diameter. As previously mentioned it’s all swollen and puffy, like a big old boil. If you dropped it on top of our solar system of planets its outer edges would easily engulf Jupiter’s orbit, maybe even touch that of Uranus. Who gives a crap about Pluto any more? [Insert your favorite anus/crap joke here.] But the whole point of this post is that people are chatting up the fact that this star could explode in our lifetimes (or in the next million years). If it did it would be bright enough to see in the daytime, maybe even brighter than the moon. Once it gets done blowing up, it just leaves a shadowy shell of itself behind. This explosion could last for weeks or months. The apocalypto-doomologists freaks are agog over this and want Betelgeuse to blow in time for Doomsday 2012. That would make them, uh, happy I guess. We haven’t had a good supernova for quite awhile. But then again, 400 years is a microsecond to the universe’s time scale.

This is what a supernova in Cassiopeia left behind. It blew up in November, 1572.

The supernova remnant in Cassiopeia looks a lot like a cell to me. A terrestrial living cell. Of course the image is totally false, gathered in X-rays and ‘interpreted’ into visible light wavelengths. But whatever. It’s pretty. Which reminds me that I need to share some more earthly beauty. It’s been a while since my wife’s orchids have grabbed my eye. She has so many of them that there’s always at least one in bloom. They seem to do best in our south-facing window.

In other terrestrial matters, I ‘enjoyed’ a long weekend by having to take Friday off while some dumbass microbes went viral in my body. It started Thursday afternoon with that ‘tickly’ throat cough. I fought back with a 102°F fever, zinc, vitamin C, garlic, honey, lemon, Nyquil, and lots of sleeping. I felt much better by Saturday, but continued with the resting theme. Got caught up on Fringe in my Hulu queue, and watched Nicholas Cage in Adaptation. That was an odd movie. At least it got me to take out the camera and shoot the orchids. More sleep and Nyquil.

The squirrels have been busy in our back yard. Uh oh!

Arrggghhh!  If we say ‘Uh oh” when we look out the window, Oliver goes nuts. The sound of the camera being turned on also sets him off. It usually means there’s a critter out there.

A few posts back I mentioned scanning all those old Kodachromes right? Well it only seems right to share some of those images from the not too distant past. Here’s one of the kids and the new golden retriever puppy which our daughter named Lily. More to come.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all. Love rules!


  1. You outdid yourself with pictures this time– both past and present. The picture of your children almost doesn’t look real it’s so perfect. And I love the one of the squirrels frolicking too. They almost make cold look fun.

    I see Orion on the mornings when I walk out my back door at zero dark thirty to go the gym. Something about its constancy makes me smile, which is quite a feat at zero dark thirty.

    I took an astronomy class in college, thinking it would be an easy way to meet my science requirement. Sadly, I was mistaken.

    Thank you Allison. The Kodachrome did get the usual web tweak, which amplified the effect.

    I’ll bet Orion smiles back at you at zero dark thirty. Keep your eye on Betelgeuse. 🙂

  2. Great photos – especially the last one. the colours are almost hyperreal

    Thank you nursemyra. Alas, they ARE almost hyperreal. I always tweak images before posting them here, which involves turning up the color saturation, clicking “Autocorrect”, and reducing the file size. 🙂

  3. But do the orchids blossom in winter? Do you heat your house very much?

    The squirrel looks small. Must be hungry. Is it a baby squirrel?

    Yes, they blossom on their own schedule it seems. And the blossoms last for a month or two. Our house is heated to about 20°C or less in the winter.

    Those were two adult squirrels. Maybe they’re smaller than Spanish squirrels. I’d guess they weigh in the 3-4 pound range. Nothing in the photo for scale. They’re about 20 inches long from nose to tail.

  4. I do hope Zaphod Beeblebrox’s little planet near Betelgeuse wasn’t harmed! Whatever you do, Don’t Panic!

    My grandson’s name is Orion. Really!

    Prepare yourself for 3 solid weeks of coughing, fatigue, and nose blowing.

    The flowers are lovely.

    I’m still strangely entertained by the way your dog looks.

    Sorry, the transdimensional bypass must go through.

    We have a friend who’s son’s name is Orion too. So I believe you.

    I’m giving my immune system an A+ on handling this viral infiltration. Plus I threw absolutely everything at it!

    • …oh, and always carry your towel!!

      Did Arthur Dent carry a towel? I remember he was in a bathrobe …

      • …and tell Orion the Hunter that his shoulder was likely blown by all the archery. A good orthopedic surgeon can fix it right up!

        HAH! That explains the redness and swelling. In some illustrations he has a sword and a shield.

      • Yes, Ford Prefect told Arthur to bring his towel and he did, indeed, bring it. One must’nt be without it in outer space.

        OK, but what about my question from your comment on the Groundhog Error post? What’s soamser mean?

  5. Thanks for the rich, dense post — something akin to a really great brownie! And closing with that spectacular shot of the three little pups. Wow! Did time ever fly! I came to the blog because had posted pictures of the orchid festival and I wondered if you had posted. And you had!! Feel better.

    Thanks Carol, glad you enjoyed the chocolaty goodness of stellar death. It was that stupid movie Adaptation that prompted me to photograph the blossoms. Back to work today with slight cough and runny nose. It’s all good.

  6. Based on a very old memory, I’d have bet Betelgeuse was the middle star in Orion’s belt. The memory dates back to grade school, when we all had a chance to “buy” a piece of Betelgeuse and received a certificate/deed attesting to our ownership. Perhaps we were told it was the middle star because that one is so easy to spot, even for a child. And kids, of course, are intrigued by a star named “Beetle juice.”

    Yes, the memorably funny name helps, and it’s so easy to pick out. Maybe your inner nerd is remembering that there is an interesting attraction near Orion’s belt. It’s below his belt actually. At the bottom of the sword sheath is M42, one of the brightest nebulae in the sky, easily seen with binoculars or sharp [young] eyes. Or not. Hell if they were selling pieces of Betelgeuse who knows what they told your class? 🙂

  7. It DOES look like a cell. Gets one to think about interconnectedness. This has been quite informative, thank you for that. The flowers are the most gorgeous things I’ve seen in ages, and the “old” pics did my heart good. Belated Valentine’s love to YOU, Dave!

    Yeah, interconnectedness! That’s the word I was looking for. Thanks. The holographic universe(s). 😀

  8. In this case those are enormous squirrels. However, now there is a new header (or I didn’t notice it before) and there is something peeping from behind the snow wall or sitting just on the edge of that wall, and the dog looks, but does not seem too interested, and what could that be? I made a screen shot to see whether the picture can be enlarged, but nada.


    Remember I told you about exciting things happening here. Now they have become nerve-wrecking, because there is a news blackout. And in a little town that can be absolute, much blacker than any USA Middle East allies can do in their regions.

    90 days until election day, and the new mayor’s name is known, but he keeps a low profile, presumably because he first has to haggle on the financial conditions. Presumably the town is deep in debt and impossible to govern without some backing from some Powers that be.
    Those local debts cannot be published because their size and their opaqueness might destabilize The Markets 😀
    Let’s say a debt of 80 000 000 = 100 000 000 for a town of 45 000 inhabitants that is not too ugly, is it? But if there were 1000 or more little towns like that?

    Yes, I think the squirrels are fairly large too. We also have a reddish colored species that like to frolic under the bird feeders, but they tend to be much smaller than the gray ones. I’d say the gray ones are big enough to eat, if one was desperate enough.

    Oliver was actually focused on the activities over at the barn. The object peeping from behind the snow is just the top of a rosebush or something like that. Mira:

    I hope your town is able to recover from that horrible debt. It looks like we should be seeing a number of states in the USA battling similarly red ink. Perhaps some will go into bankruptcy. I saw on TV this morning Mike Huckabee, a potential 2012 presidential candidate joking with George Stephanopoulos this morning that maybe the USA ought to be investing in Rosetta Stone software to teach US citizens Mandarin Chinese if we cannot get on top of the national debt situation.

  9. Look at the end of line 10:

    Orion is not quite in the ecliptic, the path traced thought

    Thank you for catching that. I fixed it. 🙂

  10. I want you to know that I was here a few days ago, but I couldn’t post a comment because my computer was acting up. I just wanted to say that this is one of my favorite posts ever. You’re the only person I know who can go from constellations to dumbass microbes to dogs, and have it all make sense. Oh, to be a fly on the inner walls of your cranium…

    These photos are ridiculous, David. And I mean that in a good way. Especially the last one. I can’t wait to see more of them.

    Thank you for coming back and leaving that very nice comment B. If your computer acts up again, maybe I can help. Usually my advice is to shut down and restart, depending on the symptoms.

    If you were a fly on the wall of my cranium, you would be in great company. There’s all kinds of flies in there. In fact I’d suggest that you bring a fly swatter. Also suggest that you visit my left cranium first. Check which brain side you favor:

    Is she going clockwise or counterclockwise?

    I’d like you to know that I’ve read all the “Published Convo” items and I lolled and lolled! You are a gifted humorist.

    Thanks for the photo props too. You’re not so bad yourself.

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