Dimming Betelgeuse Likely Isn’t Cold, Just Dusty

Images of Betelgeuse dimming.

Observations of the star Betelgeuse taken by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in January and December 2019, which show the star’s substantial dimming. (Image: M. Montargès et al via ESO)

Late last year, news broke that the star Betelgeuse was fading significantly, ultimately dropping to around 40 percent of its usual brightness. The activity fueled popular speculation that the red supergiant would soon explode as a massive supernova.

But astronomers have more benign theories to explain the star’s dimming behavior. And scientists at the University of Washington and Lowell Observatory believe they have support for one of them: Betelgeuse isn’t dimming because it’s about to explode — it’s just dusty.

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In a paper accepted to Astrophysical Journal Letters, Emily Levesque, a UW associate professor of astronomy, and Philip Massey, an astronomer with Lowell Observatory, report that observations of Betelgeuse taken on Feb. 14 at the Flagstaff, Arizona, observatory allowed them to calculate the average surface temperature of the star. They discovered that Betelgeuse is significantly warmer than expected if the recent dimming was caused by a cooling of the star’s surface.

A visible-light image of VY Canis Majoris, a red supergiant star that is largely obscured by dust, taken in 2005.
A visible-light image of VY Canis Majoris, a red supergiant star that is largely obscured by dust, taken in 2005. (Image: R. Humphreys, University of Minnesota via NASA / ESA)

The new calculations lend support to the theory that Betelgeuse — as many red supergiant stars are prone to do — has likely sloughed off some material from its outer layers. Levesque said:

Betelgeuse is expected to explode as a supernova

It is still true: Astronomers expect Betelgeuse to explode as a supernova within the next 100,000 years when its core collapses. But the star’s dimming, which began in October, wasn’t necessarily a sign of an imminent supernova, according to Massey.

One theory was that newly formed dust was absorbing some of Betelgeuse’s light. Another posited that huge convection cells within Betelgeuse had drawn hot material up to its surface, where it had cooled before falling back into the interior. Massey said:

Measuring a star’s temperature is no straightforward task. Scientists can’t just point a thermometer at a star and get a reading. But by looking at the spectrum of light emanating from a star, astronomers can calculate its temperature. Massey added:

The light from bright stars is often too strong for a detailed spectrum, but Massey employed a filter that effectively “dampened” the signal so they could mine the spectrum for a particular signature: the absorbance of light by molecules of titanium oxide.

Titanium oxide can form and accumulate in the upper layers of large, relatively cool stars like Betelgeuse, according to Levesque. It absorbs certain wavelengths of light, leaving telltale “scoops” in the spectrum of red supergiants that scientists can use to determine the star’s surface temperature.

A simulation of giant convection cells on a hypothetical red supergiant star.
A simulation of giant convection cells on a hypothetical red supergiant star. (Image: Bernd Freytag via Uppsala University)

By their calculations, Betelgeuse’s average surface temperature on Feb. 14 was about 3,325°C, or 6,017°F. That’s only 50-100 degrees Celsius cooler than the temperature that a team — including Massey and Levesque — had calculated as Betelgeuse’s surface temperature in 2004, years before its dramatic dimming began.

These findings cast doubt that Betelgeuse is dimming because one of the star’s massive convection cells had brought hot gas from the interior to the surface, where it had cooled. Many stars have these convection cells, including our own Sun. They resemble the surface of a pot of boiling water, said Levesque.

An image of Betelgeuse captured in 2017 by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, showing probable convection cells at the surface.
An image of Betelgeuse captured in 2017 by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, showing probable convection cells at the surface. (Image: E. O’Gorman, P. Kervella via ALMA / ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)

But whereas the convection cells on our Sun are numerous and relatively small — roughly the size of Texas or Mexico — red supergiants like Betelgeuse, which are larger, cooler, and have weaker gravity, sport just three or four massive convection cells that stretch over much of their surfaces.

If one of these massive cells had risen to Betelgeuse’s surface, Levesque and Massey would have registered a substantially greater decrease in temperature than what they saw between 2004 and 2020. Messey said:

Astronomers have observed clouds of dust around other red supergiants, and additional observations may reveal similar clutter around Betelgeuse. Over the past few weeks, Betelgeuse has actually started to brighten again, albeit slightly. Even if the recent dimming wasn’t an indication that the star would soon explode, to Levesque and Massey, that’s no reason to stop looking. Levesque said:

Provided by: James Urton, University of Washington [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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