NASA’s Hubble Spots Supergiant Star Betelgeuse Erupting In A Violent Historic Explosion

star betelgeuse
The Hubble Space Telescope captured data in 2019 that has led astronomers to conclude supergiant star Betelgeuse blew its top, literally. The star lost a large amount of its visible surface and produced a mammoth Surface Mass Ejection (SME).

To put just how massive this explosion was into perspective, our own Sun regularly blasts off parts of its tenuous outer atmosphere, the corona. This dynamic event is known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). However, Betelgeuse's SME emitted 400 billion times as much mass as a typical CME we see from our Sun.

betelgeuse star
Image Credit: NASA

Andrea Dupree of the Center for Astrophysics says that the colossal star is currently slowly recovering from this event. She remarked, "Betelgeuse continues doing some very unusual things right now, the interior is sort of bouncing." This can be seen in the representation of Betelgeuse on the far right in the image above.

While the bad-tempered behavior of Betelgeuse is surprising to astronomers, it is not necessarily indicative that the star is about to blow up anytime in the near future. Astronomers are, however, using these latest observations as clues to how red stars lose mass late in their lives as their "nuclear fusion furnaces burn out."

Dupree is in fact working to pull together all those clues of the star's moody behavior before, after, and during the eruption in order to piece together a coherent story like no other of an aging star.

"We've never before seen a huge mass ejection of the surface of a star. We are left with something going on that we don't completely understand," Dupree explained. "It's a totally new phenomenon that we can observe directly and resolve surface details with Hubble. We're watching stellar evolution in real time."

betelgeuse outburst
Image Credit: NASA

The fractured piece of photosphere ejected during the SME is estimated to weight roughly several times that of our Moon, and has since cooled to form a dust cloud that blocked the view of the star from those trying to observe from Earth. Betelgeuse is typically one of the easiest stars to see in the night sky, and can typically be spotted by someone in their backyard. It can be found in the right shoulder of the constellation Orion. To give an idea of how immense Betelgeuse is, astronomers estimate that if it were to replace our Sun in the center of our solar system, its outer surface would extend past the orbit of Jupiter.

Researchers believe that the massive outburst in 2019 may have been caused by a convective plume, which was more than a million miles across, bubbling up from deep within the star, according to NASA. In turn, it produced shocks and pulsations that emitted the chunk of photosphere. The blast left the star with a large cool surface area under the dust cloud that was created by the cooling piece of photosphere.

Surprisingly, the supergiant star's 400-day pulsation rate is now gone. For nearly 200 years astronomers have measured this rhythm, and its current absence is evidence of how ravenous the explosion actually was. Dupree theorizes that Betelgeuse's interior convection cells, which produce the regular pulsation "may be sloshing around like an imbalanced washing machine tub."

While there were several different instruments used in the study, Dupree says Hubble was pivotal in detecting what actually occurred with Betelgeuse. NASA is also hopeful that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can be utilized to detect the ejected material in infrared light as it continues its journey away from the star.

Top Image Credit: NASA