Scientists keep watch in case Betelgeuse explodes as a supernova

Betelgeuse as seen by ALMA. Photo: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/E. O’Gorman/P. Kervella
Betelgeuse as seen by ALMA. Photo: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/E. O’Gorman/P. Kervella

Astronomers are speculating that one of the most famous stars in the night sky could explode as a supernova in the not-too-distant future.

Driving the news: Scientists have been watching as Betelgeuse, which is located in the constellation Orion, has dimmed more than expected, potentially signaling that it's about to explode.

Why it matters: Being able to observe a nearby supernova would be a rare opportunity that would allow researchers to gather priceless data on an event that only happens two or three times per century in the Milky Way.

  • A network of instruments on Earth will be on hand to detect the supernova, which may even be visible in daylight.

How it works: When a star goes supernova, subatomic particles called neutrinos shoot out from its collapsing core before the light from the explosion is visible.

  • A network of seven detectors — called SNEWS (pronounced "snooze") — is on the lookout for those neutrinos, acting as an early warning system for supernova.
  • Being able to detect these neutrinos allows for hours of lead time before the supernova is visible.
  • "[W]e're talking about some of the most intense environments in the universe. You really can't find anything more energetic than these explosions," Indiana University's Justin Vasel told Axios.

But, but, but: There's no guarantee that the star's explosion is imminent. It's possible that Betelgeuse's dimming is a normal part of its stellar cycle and isn't actually a sign of exciting things to come.

Go deeper: Rare supernova is helping scientists unlock some of the inner-workings of the universe