An astronomer’s telegram: A bright red star Betelgeuse is dying

Betelgeuse star Orion supernova
When Betelgeuse collapses and goes supernova, it would appear brighter than a half-moon for more than a hundred days | Image - Prathap Ravishankar

Bearing a shocking revelation, the astronomer's telegram, numbered ATel #13439, arrived in the wee hours, 03:57 UT (09:27 IST) of December 8, 2019. Sent by Edward Guinan and Richard Wasatonic from Villanova University, it reported an “unprecedented dimming of the bright red supergiant Betelgeuse” star.

The brightest star of the night sky is Sirius (popularly called Dog-star). Until recently Betelgeuse was the tenth brightest star. Since October 2019, it has slipped to 25th position, as it is only about 36% as bright as it was a year ago. As a variable star, the fluctuation in the brightness of Betelgeuse doesn’t come as a surprise. But the intensity has been fading since October 2019, reaching a modern all-time low on December 7, 2019.

Speculation went wild. News spread like wildfire — that Betelgeuse, known in Indian astronomy as Ārdrā/Thiruvathirai, is in its death throes. Like the lull before the storm, giant stars dim during the pre-supernova phase, before it finally collapses and ends in a fiery supernova explosion, so they said.

But, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” said Mark Twain once, in a cheeky telegram to the press in the United States after his obituary had been mistakenly published.

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