Multiple arcs are revealed around Betelgeuse, the nearest red supergiant star to Earth, in this new image from ESA’s Herschel space observatory. The star and its arc-shaped shields could collide with an intriguing dusty ‘wall’ in 5000 years.
Betelgeuse rides on the shoulder of the constellation Orion the Hunter. It can easily be seen with the naked eye in the northern hemisphere winter night sky as the orange–red star above and to the left of Orion’s famous three-star belt.
Composite color image of the Herschel PACS 70, 100, 160 micron-wavelength images of Betelgeuse. North is to the top left, east is to the bottom left, and the image is about 25 arcminutes across.
The star (center) is surrounded by a clumpy envelope of material in its immediate vicinity. A series of arcs 6–7 arcminutes to the left of the star is material ejected from Betelgeuse as it evolved into a red supergiant star, shaped by its bow shock interaction with the interstellar medium. A faint linear bar of dust is illuminated at a distance of 9 arcminutes and may represent a dusty filament connected to the local Galactic magnetic field or the edge of an interstellar cloud. If so, then Betelgeuse’s motion across the sky implies that the arcs will hit the wall in 5000 years time, with the star colliding with the wall 12 500 years later.
Roughly 1000 times the diameter of our Sun and shining 100 000 times more brightly, Betelgeuse’s impressive statistics come with a cost. For this star is likely on its way to a spectacular supernova explosion, having already swelled into a red supergiant and shed a significant fraction of its outer layers.
The new far-infrared view from Herschel shows how the star’s winds are crashing against the surrounding interstellar medium, creating a bow shock as the star moves through space at speeds of around 30 km/s.
A series of broken, dusty arcs ahead of the star’s direction of motion testify to a turbulent history of mass loss.
Closer to the star itself, an inner envelope of material shows a pronounced asymmetric structure. Large convective cells in the star’s outer atmosphere have likely resulted in localised, clumpy ejections of dusty debris at different stages in the past.
If the bar is a completely separate object, then taking into account the motion of Betelgeuse and its arcs and the separation between them and the bar, the outermost arc will collide with the bar in just 5000 years, with the red supergiant star itself hitting the bar roughly 12 500 years later.
This artist’s impression shows how the bow shock structure is oriented with respect to Betelgeuse, the flow of the interstellar medium, and the Earth.
A discontinuity in density and pressure appears at the boundary where stellar wind from Betelgeuse collides into interstellar matter. Betelgeuse moves in space from lower right to upper left in this figure.
Researchers have found a strong flow of the interstellar medium around the star which originates from star-forming regions in Orion’s Belt and has a velocity of 11 km/s. Betelgeuse is crossing this river at 30 km/s, while spewing out wind at 17 km/s.
The Spotty Surface of Betelgeuse: Betelgeuse really is a big star. If placed at the center of our Solar System it would extend to the orbit of Jupiter. But like all stars except the Sun, Betelgeuse is so distant it usually appears as a single point of light, even in large telescopes. Still, astronomers using interferometry at infrared wavelengths can resolve the surface of Betelgeuse and reconstructed this image of the red supergiant. The intriguing picture shows two, large, bright, star spots. The spots potentially represent enormous convective cells rising from below the supergiant’s surface. They are bright because they’re hotter than the rest of the surface, but both spots and surface are cooler than the Sun. Also known as Alpha Orionis, Betelgeuse is about 600 light-years away.
Credit: Xavier Haubois (Observatoire de Paris) et al.
In Greek mythology, Orion was a hunter whose vanity was so great that he angered the goddess Artemis. As his punishment, Artemis banished the hunter to the sky where he can be seen as the famous constellation Orion. In the constellation, Orion’s head is represented by the star Lamdba Orionis (fuzzy red dot in middle). When viewed in infrared light, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, shows a giant nebula around Lambda Orionis, inflating Orion’s head to huge proportions.
Lambda Orionis is a hot, massive star that is surrounded by several other hot, massive stars, all of which are creating radiation that excites a ring of dust, creating the “Lambda Orionis molecular ring.” Also known as SH 2-264, the Lambda Orionis molecular ring is sometimes called the Meissa ring. In Arabic, the star Lambda Orionis is known as “Meissa” or “Al-Maisan,” meaning “the shining one.” The Meissa Ring is of interest to astronomers because it contains clusters of young stars and proto-stars, or forming stars, embedded within the clouds. With a diameter of approximately 130 light-years, the Lambda Orionis molecular ring is notable for being one of the largest star-forming regions WISE has seen. This is also the largest single image featured by WISE so far, with an area of the sky approximately 10 by 10 degrees in size, equivalent to a grid of 20 by 20 full moons. Nevertheless, at less than one percent of the whole sky’s area, it is just a taste of WISE data.
The bright blue star in the lower left corner of the image is the star Betelgeuse, which represents one shoulder of the hunter Orion. The name Betelgeuse is actually a corruption of the original Arabic phrase “Yad al-Jauza’,” meaning “hand of the giant one.” Betelgeuse is well known for being a red supergiant star, yet in WISE’s infrared view it appears blue, as do most stars in WISE images. This is because most stars, including Betelgeuse, put out more light in the shortest infrared wavelengths of light captured by WISE, and those shorter wavelengths are presented in WISE images as blue and cyan.
In visible light, Orion’s other shoulder is clearly marked by the variable star Bellatrix. In infrared light, however, Bellatrix is a somewhat unremarkable cyan-colored star in the right side of the image. In Latin, Bellatrix means “female warrior,” which is perhaps why the name was chosen for a female witch character in the popular Harry Potter books.
Also seen in this image are two dark nebulae, Barnard 30 and Barnard 35, which are parts of the Meissa ring that are so dense they block out visible light. Barnard 30 is the bright knob of gas and dust in the top center part of the image. Barnard 35 appears as a hook extending towards the center of the ring just above and to the right of the star Betelgeuse. The bright reddish object seen to in the middle right part of the image is the star HR 1763, which is surrounded by another star-forming region, LBN 867.
Color in this image represents specific wavelengths of infrared light. Blue and cyan represent 3.4- and 4.6-microns, primarily light emitted by hot stars. Green and red represent 12- and 22-micron light, which is mainly radiation from warm dust.
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