Astronomers reveal a mysterious mystery: a dust cloud obscuring a giant star | Science

At the end of 2019, the astronomical world was turned upside down. The bright orange star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion suddenly darkened. For a moment he thought that the giant star was about to explode. A research team led by KU Leuven has now shown that this is not the case. The star seemed to be partially hidden behind a cloud of dust.




During the 2019-2020 transition period, astronomers briefly believed that a supernova would occur. The massive star Betelgeuse suddenly became less bright in the night sky. An event that was visible to the naked eye. High-resolution images taken with the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope clearly showed how the surface of Betelgeuse was refracting. This “great eclipse” lasted until April 2020, when the giant star returned to its normal brightness.

Pictures of the giant star Betelgeuse during the “Great Eclipse” at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. © ESO / M. Montargès et al.

Dr. Miguel Montargues of the Paris Observatory was one of the scientists who captured the star with a camera. While researching he worked at KU Leuven. “It’s very rare that we see a star’s appearance change over a time scale of several weeks,” he says.

“Instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope allowed us to not only observe the star as a point, but also see the details on its surface and observe it throughout the event.”

Only these unique photos show how Betelgeuse’s surface has changed. Featured in the leading magazine nature Posted.

dust veil

But not only pictures were taken. The team also uncovered the mystery of how this is now possible. The cause of the mysterious eclipse was a veil of dust. This was created by a combination of gas bubbles and low temperature on the surface of Betelgeuse

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Like a pot of boiling water, the star also has gas bubbles that rise to the surface. Shortly before the “Great Eclipse,” the star released a large gas bubble that turned into a cloud of dust with the surface of Betelgeuse cooling afterward.

The location of Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion.
The location of Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. © ESO / N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

“We’ve seen the formation of a so-called stardust,” Montargis said. The new results show that dust can form very quickly and close to the surface of a star.

“This could later be used as a building material for terrestrial planets and living organisms,” adds co-researcher Emily Cannon of KU Leuven. “It was exciting to witness the dimming of such a famous star. For us researchers, but also amateur astronomers. When you look at the stars at night, these twinkling little points of light seem undisturbed. The eclipse of Betelgeuse breaks that illusion.”

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