The bright star’s great dimming may have been a big dust burp
Astrophysicist Miguel Montargès has a clear memory of the moment the stars became real places to him. He was 7 or 8 years old, looking up from the garden of his parents’ apartment in the south of France. A huge, red star winked in the night. The young space fan connected the star to a map he had studied in an astronomy magazine and realized he knew its name: Betelgeuse.
Something shifted for him. That star was no longer an anonymous speck floating in a vast uncharted sea. It was a destination, with a name.
“I thought, wow, for the first time … I can name a star,” he says. The realization was life-changing.
Since then, Montargès, now at the Paris Observatory, has written his Ph.D. thesis and about a dozen papers about Betelgeuse. He considers the star an old friend, observing it many times a year, for work and for fun. He says good-bye every May when the star slips behind the sun from the perspective of Earth, and says hello again in August when the star comes back.
So in late 2019, when the bright star suddenly dimmed for no apparent reason, Montargès was a little alarmed. Some people speculated that Betelgeuse was about to explode in a brilliant supernova that would outshine the full moon. Astronomers know the star is old and its days are numbered, but Montargès wasn’t ready to see it go.
“It’s my favorite star,” he says. “I don’t want it to die.”
Other researchers, though, were eager to watch Betelgeuse explode in real time. Supernovas mark the violent deaths of stars that are at least eight times as massive as the sun (SN: 11/7/20, p. 20). But astronomers still don’t know what would signal that one is about to blow. The outbursts sprinkle interstellar space with elements that ultimately form the bulk of planets and people — carbon, oxygen, iron (SN: 2/18/17, p. 24). So the question of how supernovas occur is a question of our own origins.
But the explosions are rare — astronomers estimate that one occurs in our galaxy just a few times a century. The last one spotted nearby, SN 1987A, was more than 33 years ago in a neighboring galaxy (SN: 2/18/17, p. 20). Betelgeuse is just one of the many aging, massive stars — called red supergiants — that could go supernova at any moment. But as one of the closest and brightest, Betelgeuse is the one that space enthusiasts know best.
So when the star started acting strangely at the end of last year, Montargès and a small band of Betelgeuse diehards aimed every telescope they could at the dimming giant. Over the following months, the star returned to its usual brightness, and the excitement over an imminent supernova faded. But the flurry of data collected in the rush to figure out what was happening might help answer a different long-standing question: How do massive, old stars send their planet-building star stuff into the cosmos even before they explode?
If you’ve looked up at the stars during winter in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ve probably seen Betelgeuse, whether you realized it or not. The star is the second brightest in the constellation Orion, marking the hunter’s left shoulder from our perspective.
And it’s huge. Estimates for Betelgeuse’s vital statistics vary, but if it sat at the center of our solar system, the star would fill much of the space between the sun and Jupiter. At about 15 to 20 times as massive as the sun, somewhere between 750 and 1,000 times its diameter and just about 550 light-years from Earth, Betelgeuse is typically between the sixth- and seventh-brightest star in the sky.
Betelgeuse’s brightness varies, even under normal circumstances. Its outer layers are a bubbling cauldron of hot gas and plasma. As hot material rises to the surface, the star brightens; as material falls toward the core, the star dims. That convection cycle puts Betelgeuse on a semiregular dimmer switch that fluctuates roughly every 400 days or so. The star’s brightness also varies about every six years, though astronomers don’t know why.
What they do know is that Betelgeuse is running out of time. It’s less than 10 million years old, a youngster compared with the roughly 4.6-billion–year-old sun. But because Betelgeuse is so massive and burns through its fuel so quickly, it’s already in the final life stage of a red supergiant. Someday in the not too distant future, the star won’t be able to support its own weight — it will collapse in on itself and rebound in a supernova.
“We know one day it’s going to die and explode,” says Emily Levesque, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. But no one knows when. “In astronomical terms, ‘one day’ means sometime in the next 200,000 years.”
In October 2019, Betelgeuse started dimming, which wasn’t too strange in and of itself. The change fit within the normal 400ish-day cycle, says astronomer Edward Guinan of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who has been tracking Betelgeuse’s cycles of brightness since the 1980s.
But by Christmas, Betelgeuse was the dimmest it had been in the 100-plus years that astronomers have measured it. And the dimming continued all the way through February.
Guinan was one of the first to sound the alarm. On December 7, and again on December 23, he and colleagues posted a bulletin on The Astronomer’s Telegram website announcing the star’s “fainting” and encouraging fellow astronomers to take a look.
There was no reason to think that the dimming was a harbinger of a supernova. “I never said it was going to be one,” Guinan says. But because these explosions are so rare, astronomers don’t know what the signals of an imminent supernova are. Dimming could be one of them.
That report of odd behavior was all astronomers and amateur space enthusiasts needed to hear. Online, the story caught fire.
“On Twitter, it was hysterical,” says Andrea Dupree, an astrophysicist at the Harvard & Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. She recalls seeing one tweet suggesting that the explosion was going to happen that night, with the hashtag #HIDE. “Where am I going to hide? Under my desk?” (When Betelgeuse finally explodes, it probably won’t hurt life on Earth — it’s a safe distance away.)
Most astronomers didn’t really believe that Betelgeuse’s end was nigh, even as they rushed to schedule telescope time. But some got caught up in the excitement.
“I don’t expect it to blow,” Guinan recalls thinking. “But I don’t want to blink.” He signed up for phone alerts from telescopes that detect invisible particles called neutrinos and ripples in spacetime called gravitational waves. A detection of either one might be an early sign of a supernova. He found himself outside at 1 a.m. in January after a report of gravitational waves from the direction of Orion. “It was cloudy, but I thought I might see a brightening,” he says. “I’ve gotten crazy about it.”
Others were believers too, until their data cast doubt on the notion.
“I thought it might,” says astrophysicist Thavisha Dharmawardena of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “We knew there were other explanations, and we might have to look into it. But we know Betelgeuse is an old star, close to the end of its life. It was exciting.”
Once the star started returning to its usual brightness in mid-February, talk of an imminent supernova faded. A paper published in the Oct. 10 Astrophysical Journal boosted confidence in Betelgeuse’s longevity, suggesting that the star is just at the beginning of its old age and has at least 100,000 years to go before it explodes. But what was it up to, if it was not on the verge of exploding?
As results from telescopes all over the world and in space flooded in, most astronomers have fallen into two camps. One says Betelgeuse’s dimming was caused by a cloud of dust coughed out by the star itself, blocking its glow. The other camp isn’t sure what the explanation is, but says “no” to the dust speculation.
If the dust theory proves true, it could have profound implications for the origins of complex chemistry, planets and even life in the universe. Red supergiants are surrounded by diffuse clouds of gas and dust that are full of elements that are forged only in stars — and those clouds form before the star explodes. Even before they die, supergiants seem to bequeath material to the next generation of stars.
“The carbon, oxygen in our body, it’s coming from there — from the supernova and from the clouds around dying stars,” Montargès says. But it’s not clear how those elements escape the stars in the first place. “We have no idea,” he says.
Montargès hoped studying Betelgeuse’s dimming would let scientists see that process in action.
In December 2019, he and colleagues took an image of Betelgeuse in visible light with the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. That image showed that, yes, Betelgeuse was much dimmer than it had been 11 months earlier — but only the star’s bottom half. Perhaps an asymmetrical dust cloud was to blame.
Observations from February 15, 2020, seem to support that idea (SN: 4/11/20, p. 6). Levesque and Philip Massey of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., compared the February observations with similar ones from 2004. The star’s temperature hadn’t dropped as much as would be expected if the dimming was from something intrinsic to the star, like its convection cycles, the pair reported in the March 10 Astrophysical Journal Letters.
That left dust as a reasonable explanation. “We know Betelgeuse sheds mass and produces dust around itself,” Levesque says. “Dust could have come toward us, cooled and temporarily blocked the light.”
A strong vote for dust came from Dupree, who was watching Betelgeuse with the Hubble Space Telescope. Like Guinan, she has a decades-long relationship with Betelgeuse. In 1996, she and colleague Ronald Gilliland looked at Betelgeuse with Hubble to make the first real image of any star other than the sun. Most stars are too far and too faint to show up as anything but a point. Betelgeuse is one of the few stars whose surface can be seen as a two-dimensional disk — a real place.
By the end of 2019, Dupree was observing Betelgeuse with Hubble several times a year. She had assembled an international team of researchers she calls the MOB, for Months of Betelgeuse, to observe the star frequently in a variety of wavelengths of light.
The goal was the same as Montargès’: to answer fundamental questions about how Betelgeuse, and perhaps other red supergiants, lose material. The MOB had baseline observations from before the dimming and already had Hubble time scheduled to track the star’s brightness cycles.
Those observations showed that in January and March 2019, Betelgeuse looked “perfectly normal,” Dupree says. But from September through November, just before the dimming event, the star gave out more ultraviolet light — up to four or five times its usual UV brightness — over its southern hemisphere.
The temperature and electron density in that region went up, too. And material seemed to be moving outward, away from the star and toward Earth.
Dupree and colleagues’ theory of what happened, reported in the Aug. 10 Astrophysical Journal, is that one of the giant bubbles of hot plasma always churning in the star’s outer layers rose to the edge of the star’s atmosphere and escaped, sending huge amounts of material flowing into interstellar space. That could be one way that red supergiants shed material before exploding.
Once it had fled the star, that hot stuff cooled, condensed into dust and floated in front of Betelgeuse for several months. As the dust cleared, Betelgeuse appeared brighter again.
“It seems to us that what we saw with the ultraviolet is kind of the smoking gun,” Dupree says. “This material moved on out, condensed and formed this dark, dark dust cloud.”
Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, shared the Hubble results in a NASA online town hall meeting on September 10 as if it were the final answer. “Mystery solved,” he said. “Not gonna supernova anytime soon.”
Cycles and spots
Maybe not — but that doesn’t mean dust explains the dimming.
In the July 1 Astrophysical Journal Letters, Dharmawardena and colleagues published observations of Betelgeuse that ran counter to the dust explanation. Her team used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii in January, February and March to look at Betelgeuse in submillimeter wavelengths of light. “If we think it’s a dust cloud, the submillimeter is the perfect wavelength to look at,” she says.
Dust should have made Betelgeuse look brighter in those wavelengths, as floating grains absorbed and reemitted starlight. But it didn’t. If anything, the star dimmed slightly. “Our first thought was that we’d done something wrong — everyone in the community expected it to be dust,” she says. But “the fact that it didn’t increase or stay constant in the submillimeter was pretty much a dead giveaway that it’s not dust.”
Infrared observations with the airborne SOFIA telescope should have found the glowing signature of dust too, if it existed. “It never showed up,” Guinan says. “I don’t think it’s dust.”
Instead, Guinan thinks the dimming may have been part of Betelgeuse’s natural convection cycle. The star’s outer atmosphere constantly pulsates and “breathes” in and out as enormous bubbles of hot plasma rise to the surface and sink down again. “It’s driven by the internal core of the star,” he says. “You have hot blobs rising up, they cool, they get more dense, they fall back.”
Multiple cycles syncing up could explain why the 2019 dimming was so extreme. Guinan and colleagues analyzed about 180 years of observations of Betelgeuse, dating back to astronomer John Herschel’s 1839 discovery that the star’s brightness varies. Guinan’s group found that, in addition to the roughly six-year and 400-day cycles, Betelgeuse might have a third, smaller cycle of about 187 days. It looks like all three cycles might have hit their brightness nadirs at the same time in late 2019, Guinan says.
Or maybe the darkness in the southern hemisphere that Montargès’ team saw with SPHERE was an enormous star spot, Dharmawardena offers. In the sun’s case, those dark splotches, called sunspots, mark the sites of magnetic activity on the surface. Betelgeuse is one of a handful of stars on which star spots have been directly seen.
But to cause Betelgeuse’s dimming, a star spot would have to be enormous. Typical star spots cover about 20 to 30 percent of a star’s surface, Dharmawardena says. This one would need to cover at least half, maybe up to 70 percent.
“That’s rare,” Dharmawardena admits. “But so is this kind of dimming.”
Analyses are still coming in. But just as Betelgeuse was returning to its normal brightness, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We were hoping to have a lot more data,” Dharmawardena says.
A few observations came in right under the wire. The SOFIA observations were made on one of the last flights before the pandemic grounded the plane that carries the telescope. And Montargès took another look with SPHERE just days before its observatory shut down in mid-March.
But one of Montargès’ most hoped-for results may never come. Eager to solve the dust versus not-dust mystery, his plan was to combine two kinds of observations: making a 2-D picture of the whole star’s disk, like Dupree did with Hubble in the ’90s, but in longer wavelengths such as infrared or submillimeter, like Dharmawardena’s images from early 2020. That way, you could differentiate the dust from the star, he reasoned.
Only one observatory can do both at once: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile. Montargès had planned to ask to observe Betelgeuse with ALMA in June and July, when the winter skies in the Southern Hemisphere are most free of turbulence. But ALMA closed in March and was still closed in September.
“When I realized ALMA will not get the time in June, I thought … we are never going to solve it,” he says. “We may never be completely certain, because of COVID.”
Any other star
Montargès and his colleagues have submitted their analysis of the SPHERE pictures from March for publication. Though he’s not yet willing to share the results, he thinks they could pull the two camps together.
Ultimately, if Betelgeuse did cough out a cloud of dust last year, it could teach us about the origins of life in the universe, Montargès says. If the dust camp is even partially right, Betelgeuse’s dimming may have been the first time humans have watched the seeds of life being launched into the cosmos.
In the meantime, he’s relieved to see his favorite star shining bright again. “I must admit that since [last] December, since this whole stuff started, every time I see it, I am like, phew, it’s still there,” he says.
People keep asking him if he would like Betelgeuse to go supernova so he can study it. “I would like another star to go supernova,” he says. “Antares, I don’t care about it; it can explode anytime. But not Betelgeuse.”