When you take a look at the stars in the night sky, they generally appear the same regardless of time. Only a small number of stars ever appear to change on human timescales, as most stars burn through their fuel very stably, with almost no variation in their continuous brightness. The few stars that do appear to change are either intrinsically variable, members of multi-star systems, or go through an enormous evolutionary change.
When very massive stars get close to the end of their lives, they start varying by tremendous amounts, and do so with significant irregularity. At a critical moment, most of these stars will run out of the nuclear fuel holding up their cores against collapse, and the resulting implosion leads to a runaway cataclysm: a core-collapse supernova. Could Betelgeuse, whose variability intensified in a novel way over the last few days, be about to explode? Here’s what astronomers know so far.
The last time our species witnessed a supernova from within our own galaxy with the naked human eye, the year was 1604. A new point of light in the sky suddenly appeared, brightened, and briefly outshone every single star before slowly fading away. This wasn’t the first such event, as prior supernovae had illuminated Earth’s skies like this in 1572, 1054, and 1006, among others.
But all of those supernovae occurred from stars that were thousands of light-years away, with Kepler’s 1604 explosion being traced back to a stellar remnant located some 20,000 light-years across the Milky Way. Of all the stars we see in the night sky, one bright member stands out as the most fascinating possibility as our galaxy’s next supernova: Betelgeuse, one of our sky’s 10 brightest stars, located a mere 640 light-years away.
Betelgeuse, best known as the bright red “shoulder” star in the constellation of Orion, is one of the most remarkable objects in all of astronomy. It is a red supergiant star: red because of its low surface temperatures, supergiant because its radius is so enormous that — if it were to replace the Sun in our Solar System — it would engulf the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, and possibly even Jupiter! In terms of physical size, it’s approximately 900 times the radius, and 700 million times the volume, of our Sun.
Betelgeuse is so large and so close that it was the first star beyond our Sun to ever be resolved as more than a point source. But perhaps its most fascinating property is that Betelgeuse is a pulsating, variable star, meaning that its diameter and brightness both change with time.
At approximately 20 times the mass of our Sun, there’s little doubt that Betelgeuse is headed on it was to becoming a supernova. Betelgeuse was likely formed in the great Orion molecular cloud complex very recently on cosmic scales: within the last 10 million years. It has already finished burning through all the hydrogen fuel in its core, and has gone onto the next element, helium, which it fuses into carbon.
Perhaps ironically, the core of Betelgeuse is now much smaller than when it was fusing hydrogen, as it contracted and heated up tremendously in order to begin fusing helium. The outer layers, with this increased radiation pressure, expanded and cooled tremendously. At a surface temperature of only 3500 K, barely half the temperature of our Sun’s photosphere, only 13% of Betelgeuse’s energy output is detectable to human eyes. If we could see the entire electromagnetic spectrum from our perspective, Betelgeuse would outshine every star in the Universe except our Sun.
We aren’t sure whether Betelgeuse is exclusively fusing helium in its core, or whether the interior has contracted even further and is now fusing carbon. While the helium fusion phase lasts for timescales of ~100,000 years, carbon fusion lasts for merely hundreds. Unfortunately, the only signature that would give us a surefire view of what processes are occurring in the core — neutrino emissions — are too faint to be seen from 640 light-years away.
All we can observe, when it comes to Betelgeuse at the present, is what’s occurring in its outermost layers. When we look there, what we see is remarkable: it’s constantly losing mass, pulsing, having its outermost layers expelled, and changing over time in both its apparent brightness and redness.
Recently, in just the past few weeks, its brightness has dropped tremendously, knocking it out of the top 10 brightest stars for the first time in many years. This dimming has led many to suspect that a supernova may be imminent, but this is extremely unlikely. The story is simple, straightforward, but not known by most people, with the exception of professional astronomers.
The key takeaway is this: what’s occurring in the outer layers of a supergiant star is largely unrelated to what processes are occurring in the inner core of a supergiant star. When you examine variable stars in general, you might think that the pulsing/variability that you see is because some process that’s changing in the core is propagating to the surface, but that’s not usually the case. Instead, there are huge convective cells in the outer layers of the star, and changes there are more than capable of causing this dimming.
In fact, if you look beyond the previous decade and instead go back to the past century, you’ll find that Betelgeuse has been this dim many, many times in the past. If you look beyond the photosphere of the star itself, you’ll find that there are enormous radio emissions that reveal the presence of expelled gas out beyond where the orbit of Neptune is around the Sun.
Similar dimming events have occurred before, reducing the brightness of Betelgeuse below even what it currently is at. But to see a dimming event occur this rapidly and this severely really hasn’t been seen before over the past century at all. It’s unlikely to be a signature of an imminent supernova, but we have to remember that since the advent of modern astronomy, we’ve never seen a star up close in the lead-up to a supernova. Whether there’s a detonation about to happen or not, something fascinating is truly occurring.
What’s not up for debate is how truly remarkable the processes at play are here. On our Sun alone, the sized of the convective cells that we find are larger than the continent of North America, with sunspots frequently exceeding the size of Earth. On the surface of a red supergiant — thousands of times larger than our Sun — there might only be a handful of convective cells altogether, causing it to look like, according to astronomer Emily Levesque, a “wacky, giant, boiling amoeba-star,” as simulated above.
Our actual astronomical maps of Betelgeuse cannot yet attain that kind of resolution, but can still reveal the following properties of Betelgeuse:
- its irregular shape,
- its uneven, non-uniform temperature,
- localized hot spots,
- and even faint plumes of illuminated ejecta near the photosphere itself.
The opportunity to study a red supergiant up close, one that’s about to go supernova relatively soon (at least, on astronomical timescales), has never occurred like this before. At only 640 light-years distant, Betelgeuse could have gone supernova at any time since the 14th century and that signal would not yet have arrived here on Earth.
When that supernova does occur, however, we’re in for a real treat. The runaway fusion reaction that occurs in the final few instants of the star’s life will generate neutrinos that should lead to millions of detectable events here our terrestrial neutrino detectors. The star will brighten to the point where it will rival or possibly even exceed the brightness of the full Moon, casting brilliant shadows at night and being clearly visible during the day for more than a year.
Unfortunately, though, the key question of exactly when Betelgeuse is going to go supernova is one that we’re not any closer to having an answer to. Until we can measure the processes occurring in the star’s core, which would require a neutrino telescope far more powerful than all the neutrino observatories on Earth combined, we cannot know which elements are being fused inside of it.
Right now, our best models are consistent with helium-burning rather than any of the heavier elements, indicating that we have at least hundreds of years — and possibly hundreds of thousands — until the inevitable supernova finally detonates. If you haven’t checked out the constellation of Orion recently, though, take a good look and notice how much dimmer red Betelgeuse is than blue Rigel, a severe departure from its past decade of appearances. A supernova may not be imminent, but is sure is fascinating to watch and hope!
Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests – CBC.ca
A southern Alberta mother and father are grappling with the sudden, unexplained death of their 17-year-old daughter, and with few answers, they’re left wondering if she could be the province’s youngest victim of COVID-19.
Sarah Strate — a healthy, active Grade 12 student at Magrath High School who loved singing, dancing and being outdoors — died on Monday, less than a week after being notified she’d been exposed to COVID-19.
While two tests came back negative, her parents say other signs point to the coronavirus, and they’re waiting for more answers.
“It was so fast. It’s all still such a shock,” said Sarah’s mother, Kristine Strate. “She never even coughed. She had a sore throat and her ears were sore for a while, and [she had] swollen neck glands.”
Kristine said Sarah developed mild symptoms shortly after her older sister — who later tested positive for COVID-19 — visited from Lethbridge, one of Alberta’s current hot spots for the virus.
The family went into isolation at their home in Magrath on Tuesday, April 20. They were swabbed the next day and the results were negative.
‘Everything went south, super-fast’
By Friday night, Sarah had developed fever and chills. On Saturday, she started vomiting and Kristine, a public health nurse, tried to keep her hydrated.
“She woke up feeling a bit more off on Monday morning,” Kristine said. “And everything went south, super-fast.”
Sarah had grown very weak and her parents decided to call 911 when she appeared to become delirious.
“She had her blanket on and I was talking to her and, in an instant, she was unresponsive,” said Kristine, who immediately started performing CPR on her daughter.
When paramedics arrived 20 minutes later, they were able to restore a heartbeat and rushed Sarah to hospital in Lethbridge, where she died.
“I thought there was hope once we got her heart rate back. I really did,” recalled Sarah’s father, Ron.
“He was praying for a miracle, and sometimes miracles don’t come,” said Kristine.
Searching for answers
At the hospital, the family was told Sarah’s lungs were severely infected and that she may have ended up with blood clots in both her heart and lungs, a condition that can be a complication of COVID-19.
But a second test at the hospital came back negative for COVID-19.
“There really is no other answer,” Ron said. “When a healthy 17-year-old girl, who was sitting up in her bed and was able to talk, and within 10 minutes is unconscious on our floor — there was no reason [for it].”
The province currently has no record of any Albertans under the age of 20 who have died of COVID-19.
According to the Strate family, the medical examiner is running additional blood and tissue tests, in an effort to uncover the cause of Sarah’s death.
‘Unusual but not impossible’
University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, who was not involved in Sarah’s treatment, says it is conceivable that further testing could uncover evidence of a COVID-19 infection, despite two negative test results.
However, she hasn’t seen a similar case in Alberta.
“It would be unusual but not impossible because no test is perfect. We have had cases where an initial test is negative and then if you keep on thinking it’s COVID and you re-test, you then can find COVID,” she said.
According to Saxinger, the rate of false negatives is believed to be very low. But it can happen if there are problems with the testing or specimen collection.
She says people are more likely to test positive after symptoms develop.
“The best sensitivity of the test is around day four or five of having symptoms,” she said. “So you can miss things if you test very, very early. And with new development of symptoms, it’s always a good time to re-test because then the likelihood of getting a positive test is a little higher. But again, no test is perfect.”
Sarah deteriorated so quickly — dying five days after she first developed symptoms — she didn’t live long enough to make it to her follow-up COVID-19 test. Instead, it was done at the hospital.
‘An amazing kid’
The Strate family now faces an agonizing wait for answers — one that will likely take months — about what caused Sarah’s death.
But Ron, who teaches at the school where Sarah attended Grade 12, wants his daughter to be remembered for the life she lived, not her death.
Sarah was one of five children. Ron says she was strong, active and vibrant and had plans to become a massage therapist after graduating from high school.
She played several sports and loved to sing and dance as part of a show choir. She was a leader in the school’s suicide prevention group and would stand up for other students who were facing bullying.
“She’s one of the leaders in our Hope Squad … which goes out and helps kids to not be scared,” he father said.
“She’s an amazing kid.”
Sarah would often spend hours helping struggling classmates, and her parents hope her kindness is not forgotten.
“She’d done so many good things. Honestly, I’ve got so many messages from parents saying, ‘You have no idea how much your daughter helped our kid,'” said Ron.
“This 17-year-old girl probably lived more of a life in 17 years than most adults will live in their whole lives. She was so special. I love her so much.”
China launches key module of space station planned for 2022
BEIJING (Reuters) -China launched an unmanned module on Thursday containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.
The module, named “Tianhe”, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.
Tianhe is one of three main components of what would be China’s first self-developed space station, rivalling the only other station in service – the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS is backed by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China was barred from participating by the United States.
“(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.
Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.
The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (211-280 miles).
In the later missions, China will launch the two other core modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft.
Work on the space station programme began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.
Both helped China test the programme’s space rendezvous and docking capabilities.
China aims to become a major space power by 2030. It has ramped up its space programme with visits to the moon, the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars and the construction of its own space station.
In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain.
The project is set to expire in 2024, barring funding from its partners. Russia said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.
Russia is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.
Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led Artemis moon exploration programme and instead chosen to join Beijing in setting up a lunar research outpost in the coming years.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Simon Cameron-Moore and Lincoln Feast.)
NASA Pays Rich Homage To Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins – Gadgets 360
NASA on Thursday paid a rich tribute to Michael Collins, the American astronaut who was the command module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Collins, 90, passed away on Wednesday after battling cancer, his family said. Sharing a photograph on Instagram, NASA said the picture was clicked by Collins, who spent seven years of his career as an astronaut with them. The photograph shows the lunar module, “Eagle,” returning to the command module, “Columbia,” after landing on the Moon. The Earth can be seen in the background of the picture. NASA said the picture had all of the humanity in it, save for Collins who captured it.
Collins kept the command module flying while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. “We remember Michael Collins, @NASA astronaut and crew member of Apollo 11, who passed away on April 28, 2021,” NASA said.
In the post, NASA also quoted what Collins had said during a transmission to Mission Control on the trip back to Earth from the Moon on July 21, 1969. “This trip of ours to the Moon may have looked, to you, simple or easy… All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all those I would like to say, thank you very much.”
NASA further shared what the mission control stated during Apollo 11. “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during the 47 minutes of each lunar revolution when he’s behind the Moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder aboard Columbia. While he waits for his comrades to soar with Eagle from Tranquility Base and rejoin him for the trip back to Earth, Collins, with the help of Flight Controllers here in Mission Control Center has kept the Command Module’s system going.”
Besides, the space agency also released a statement, saying the nation had lost a “true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration” in Collins. NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said that as the pilot of Apollo 11 some referred to him as the “loneliest man in history”.
“While his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone. He also distinguished himself in the Gemini Program and as an Air Force pilot,” he said.
Jurczyk shared that Collins would say, “Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative,” adding “What would be worth recording is what kind of civilisation we Earthlings created and whether or not we ventured out into other parts of the galaxy.”
Jurczyk added that Collins’ own signature accomplishments, his writings about his experiences, and his leadership of the National Air and Space Museum helped gain wide exposure for the work of all the men and women who have helped our nation push itself to greatness in aviation and space. “There is no doubt he inspired a new generation of scientists, engineers, test pilots, and astronauts.”
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