Mesa Musings: It's 'Betelmania' in the sky

Betelgeuse is my favorite star in the galaxy.

Make that my second-favorite, because our sun is also a star.

My attraction to Betelgeuse is largely physical. Like most males, I am beguiled by physical attributes. I'm drawn to Betelgeuse's amazing luminosity, surface gravity, mass, metallic quality and rotation.

Call me shallow, but Betelgeuse sends a tingly sensation up my leg. I'm a captive to "Betelmania."

The humongous gas orb forms the right shoulder of the Orion constellation, and is located above Orion's renowned belt. During this time of the year the supergiant, distinguished by its orange-red hue, can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere rising in the East shortly after sunset.

By contrast, our sun is kind of cheery and nice. Sure, Mr. Sun makes mornings worth getting up for, but Betelgeuse boils an angry red (surpassing in intensity even your worst case of acid reflux!), complete with menacing coronal plasma. Pulsing and noxious — and looking red even to the naked eye — the rogue giant is so much sexier than benign ol' Sol.

Betelgeuse is gargantuan! Its volume equals 1.6 billion suns. Its diameter is 650 times larger than the sun's, and it is 10,000 times brighter. If Betelgeuse were suddenly to replace the sun at the center of the solar system, its surface would extend to the orbit of the planet Jupiter.

But my love affair with this galactic colossus now teeters at the brink of credulity. It may soon be proven that Betelgeuse has been a giant fraud. A major explosion is perhaps now brewing; then, poof.

Some scientists are predicting that Betelgeuse may soon — and I'm not saying "soon" like a billion years soon, but soon as in 2012 — go supernova on us. Couple that with the end of the Mayan calendar and 2012 is shaping up to be a downer of a year.

The supergiant may be prepping for a cataclysmic detonation in a matter of months. Or maybe it'll happen in a thousand years. Or a million. Scientists are notoriously squishy about their dates.

But when it happens Betelgeuse will go from a supergiant to a neutron star in one massive implosion. As a consequence, its size will diminish from a couple of billion suns to the size of an Idaho ranch.

An Australian newspaper quotes a University of Southern Queensland staffer as saying that the star could "literally collapse in upon itself and do so very quickly." Like in a matter of weeks.

When that happens, Betelgeuse will briefly shine tens of millions of times brighter than the sun, rendering even the most potent Ray-Ban sunglasses worthless.

Will it be curtains for life on Earth, as we know it? Probably not, but the heavenly fireworks will be breathtaking to behold.

When Betelgeuse blows, the explosion will be visible from Earth -– probably even during daylight hours — but the event will not make Betelgeuse as bright to us as a "second sun."

"One could roughly expect it to be as bright as a full moon and gradually fade away over a few months," says professor Philip R. Goode, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "Everyone on Earth (will) notice and be talking about it."

Of course, if this happens next year, well, it really won't be happening next year at all. Because Betelgeuse is several hundred light years away, the explosion will have to have occurred sometime during the Middle Ages to reach us by 2012.

Wouldn't you know it? Once again the West Coast time zone gets the shaft! Our programming is routinely "tape delayed."

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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