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Why astronomers are wondering whether Orion's shoulder will soon explode – CBC.ca

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The dramatic dimming of a giant star has astronomers wondering whether it’s getting ready to explode. 

Betelgeuse — the red shoulder on the left side in the constellation Orion — has dimmed by a factor of about two since October, a change that has never been documented before.

“We know that it’s the dimmest it’s been observed ever, based on the data we have,” said Stella Kafka, chief executive officer of the American Association of Variable Star Observers

What makes this development particularly intriguing to astronomers is that the star is slated to explode in spectacular fashion: a supernova. Astronomers estimate this will happen relatively soon — in astronomical terms anyway. It could be today, tomorrow or 100,000 years from now.

And when Betelgeuse goes supernova, astronomers estimate it will be as bright as the full moon and visible even during the day.

The tricky thing is that, because Betelgeuse is a red supergiant cloaked in a cloud of dust and gas, it’s difficult to accurately describe it.

It’s believed to be anywhere between 425 to 650 light years away, with a mass roughly 10 times that of the sun. It is also huge — likely 1,400 times larger than the sun. If it sat where the sun does, it would swallow all the inner planets, including Earth, Mars and even Jupiter. It’s also about 14,000 times more luminous than our comparatively small star.

But Betelgeuse is also a variable star, meaning its brightness rises and falls periodically. But we’ve never seen it like this.

“Maybe 300 years ago, Betelgeuse was dimmer than what we’re observing now, but we don’t have data,” Kafka said. 

This image, made with the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope, shows the red supergiant Betelgeuse — one of the largest known stars. If it were at the centre of our solar system, Betelgeuse would engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and even Jupiter. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/E. O’Gorm)

 

So, does this dimming portend a potentially historic and magnificent explosion?

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s not quite clear why exactly Betelgeuse dims periodically, but one of the possibilities is that, like the sun, it has cooler and hotter parts. If one of those cooler parts swung into our line of sight, that could make it seem like the star had dimmed.

In 2018, Betelgeuse had a couple of dips in its brightness, Kafka said. What we’re seeing now could be that same spot, or possibly another.

Plus, dimming isn’t necessarily indicative of an impending explosion.

There’s no telling what will happen next.

“I don’t even know if that’s the dimmest it’s going to get. This is an event that has been evolving,” Kafka said. “We’re still in the middle of it. Well, we’re still actually at the beginning of it. These kinds of massive stars move slowly. They take their sweet time.”

A history of supernovas

Astronomers spot supernovas somewhat regularly, though in other galaxies.

The last one in our galaxy that may have been observed from Earth was Cassiopeia A in 1680. 

Astronomers estimate that supernovas occur in galaxies like ours once every 100 years or so, though that doesn’t mean we will witness them all; they could be on the other side of the galaxy, for example, or hidden from view.

The supernova remnant Cassiopeia A as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The blue dot in the centre of the image is identified as a young neutron star. (NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/O. Krause)

A perfect example is a study published in 2008 that detected the remnant of a supernova in the Milky Way that was traced back roughly 140 years. It wasn’t visible to the naked eye, as it lay close to the centre of the galaxy and was obscured by dust and gas.

So we may be due for one soon.

No mutants

Kafka said there’s no need to panic: even if Betelgeuse were to explode, it wouldn’t obliterate life on Earth or turn us into mutants, though we would notice the blow of radiation it would deliver.

“What I will tell you is that it will be super interesting,” Kafka said.

“It will be an excellent opportunity to study a supernova in the making.”

The star could explode in two ways, she said. Either in two beams from its poles, or with a spherical, symmetrical explosion in all directions. If we were in the way of the beam-type explosion — which we’re not — or if Betelgeuse was a lot closer, we’d be in trouble.

But for now, you can carry on enjoying the holidays, if that’s what you were planning.

“We’re not going to die,” Kafka said. “But if you’re looking for an excuse to eat more this Christmas, go for it.”

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Manitoba company helps land Perseverance rover on Mars with high-speed camera – CBC.ca

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It’s only about the size of a loaf of bread. But a high-speed, tough-as-nails camera created by a company in Minnedosa, Man., played an instrumental role in landing NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars last week.

“You could run over it, it could fall, you could throw it out your window. That’s how tough they need to be,” Canadian Photonic Labs president Mark Wahoski said of the camera used in the monumental landing on Feb. 18.

His company, based in the southwestern Manitoba town — population around 2,500 — manufactures high-speed cameras for industrial, scientific and military markets, according to its website.

It took years to design the Perseverance camera in a way that would allow it to withstand the planet’s gravitational force — and snap images fast enough, Wahoski told host Marjorie Dowhos on CBC’s Radio Noon on Friday.

“It’s really hard to comprehend just how fast that is,” he said. “They go anywhere from normal, 30 frames per second — like your cellphone camera — all the way up to 250,000 frames per second.”

And the testing involved to make sure it’s up to the task before it gets sent into space is just as complex.

One of the simulations involved sending a metal sled with rocket engines strapped on top of it down a five-mile railroad bed in California, Wahoski said.

Another saw a helicopter lift a parachute, tied to that same rocket sled, up thousands of feet in the air before sending the sled down the track.

“On one of the tests, they determined they had to make this particular part stronger. So without those tests, the lander probably would not make it,” Wahoski said.

The Manitoba company’s relationship with NASA dates back roughly 15 years, he said — but much of the work that’s happened in that time has been cloaked in secrecy.

“A lot of it you can’t speak about…. You do the test and you do the support and you move on to the next project,” he said.

However, the attention around the Perseverance rover landing has been an exciting development, Wahoski said.

This photo provided by NASA shows the first color image sent by the Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Feb. 18. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/The Associated Press)

Once the landing finally happened, he said he had one word to describe how he felt: awesome.

“We had to just reflect back and say, ‘Oh gee, yeah, we did some of that.'”

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NASA's Perseverance Rover Transmits to Earth from the Surface of Mars – UPI.com

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image during its descent to Mars, using its Descent Stage Down-Look Camera. This camera is mounted on the bottom of the descent stage and looks at the rover. This image was acquired on February 22, 2021 (Sol 1) at the local mean solar time of 10:37:31. A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith. NASA/UPI

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SEE IT: moon-sized fireball shot through sky over Chatham-Kent – Chatham Daily News

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Stargazers were treated to quite the show on Friday night with a giant fireball spotted in Chatham-Kent.

Peter Brown, Western University professor in the astronomy and physics department, posted on Twitter on Saturday morning that the fireball ended at approximately 30 km in height just north of Lake St. Clair near Fair Haven, Mich.

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According to the NASA website, observers in Ontario, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania reported the sighting at 10:07 p.m. EST.

“This event was captured by several all sky meteor cameras belonging to the NASA All Sky Fireball Network and the Southern Ontario Meteor Network operated by Western University,” it stated.

“A first analysis of the video data shows that the meteor appeared 90 km (56 miles) above Erieau on the northern shore of Lake Erie. It moved northwest at a speed of 105,800 kilometres per hour (65,800 miles per hour), crossing the U.S./Canada border before ablating 32 kilometres (20 miles) above Fair Haven, Mich.”

NASA stated the orbit of the object is “low inclination” and has an aphelion — defined as the point in the orbit of an object where it is farthest from the sun — near the orbit of Jupiter, and a perihelion — nearest to the sun — between the orbits of Mercury and Venus.

“It suggests that the meteor was caused by a fragment of a Jupiter family comet, though an asteroidal origin is also possible. At its brightest, the fireball rivalled the quarter moon in intensity. Combining this with the speed gives the fragment a mass of at least two kilograms and a diameter of approximately 12 centimetres (five inches).

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