Dying Red Supergiant Betelgeuse Closest to Earth Braces for Collision

First Posted: Jan 23, 2013 11:39 AM EST

Betelgeuse is the nearest red supergiant star to Earth, and is probably going to die in a supernova. The European Space Agency's Herschel space observatory captured this far-infrared view that 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.

What's more, since the star is moving at this speed, it will likely collide, together with its arc-shaped shields, with an intriguing dusty 'wall' in about 5000 years.

Betelgeuse can easily be seen in the northern hemisphere winter night sky as the orange-red star above and to the left of the Orion constellation's famous three-star belt, owing to it's huge size and brightness. The red supergiant has 1000 times the diameter of our Sun and shining 100 000 times more brightly. But the extreme power output comes at the cost of a reduced lifetime, with the star likely already on its way to a spectacular supernova explosion, having already swelled into a red supergiant and shed a significant fraction of its outer layers.

It is this turbulent history of mass loss that likely led to the series of broken, dusty arcs ahead of the star's direction of motion. An intriguing linear that is seen further away from the star, beyond the dusty arcs, is more of a question. Earlier theories proposed that this bar also resulted from material ejected during a previous stage of stellar evolution, but analysis of the new image suggests that it is either a linear filament linked to the Galaxy's magnetic field, or the edge of a nearby interstellar cloud that is being illuminated by Betelgeuse.

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.

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