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Betelgeuse as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/CfA/STScI

Betelgeuse — the red supergiant star — spit out a huge mass of hot gas and plasma that made it look like it had dimmed significantly from Earth's perspective at the end of 2019 and earlier this year, according to new research.

The big picture: Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and astronomers keep a close watch on it, with the expectation that it may one day explode as a supernova.

  • That explosion could provide an amazing scientific opportunity to study one of these extreme phenomena from close range.

Details: The Hubble Space Telescope observed extremely hot and dense material moving through the atmosphere of Betelgeuse from September to November of last year, according to NASA.

  • The hot material burst from the star, which is in the constellation Orion's shoulder.
  • Once that material was far enough away from Betelgeuse it cooled, forming dust that obscured the supergiant and making it seem dim from Earth, according to the new study in The Astrophysical Journal.
  • "This material was two to four times more luminous than the star's normal brightness," Andrea Dupree, an author of the study, said in a statement. "And then, about a month later, the south part of Betelgeuse dimmed conspicuously as the star grew fainter. We think it is possible that a dark cloud resulted from the outflow that Hubble detected."

What's next: Scientists aren't yet sure if the outburst could be a sign that the star is going to explode anytime soon, and according to recent observations from NASA's STEREO spacecraft, the star appears to be dimming again.

  • "No one knows what a star does right before it goes supernova, because it's never been observed," Dupree added. "Astronomers have sampled stars maybe a year ahead of them going supernova, but not within days or weeks before it happened. But the chance of the star going supernova anytime soon is pretty small."

Go deeper

10 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Congressional Hispanics want Lujan Grisham at HHS

Michelle Lujan Grisham arriving on Capitol Hill. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Hispanic lawmakers are openly lobbying to have New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham be named Health and Human Services secretary, according to a letter obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: These members are now following the example some Black lawmakers have used for weeks: trying to convince Joe Biden his political interests will be served by rewarding certain demographic groups with Cabinet picks.

3 hours ago - World

Map: A look at world population density in 3D

This fascinating map is made by Alasdair Rae of Sheffield, England, a former professor of urban studies who is the founder of Automatic Knowledge. It shows world population density in 3D.

Details: "No land is shown on the map, only the locations where people actually live. ... The higher the spike, the more people live in an area. Where there are no spikes, there are no people (e.g. you can clearly identify ... the Sahara Desert)."

Biden's Day 1 challenges: The immigration reset

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President-elect Biden has an aggressive Day 1 immigration agenda that relies heavily on executive actions to undo President Trump's crackdown.

Why it matters: It's not that easy. Trump issued more than 400 executive actions on immigration. Advocates are fired up. The Supreme Court could threaten the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and experts warn there could be another surge at the border.