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Betelgeuse supernova explosion on hold as giant star stops dimming

A supergiant star has gone all space ham, suggesting it might soon go supernova, but now shows signs of mellowing.

An artist's impression of a roiling Betelgeuse.
ESO/L. Calçada

The enigmatic supergiant star Betelgeuse is still on schedule to explode sometime within the next 100,000 years, but it's probably not happening tomorrow. That's according to an astronomer who has been watching the shape-shifting sun for decades.

The massive red solar furnace, several hundred light years away from us, has been making headlines for months now as it has rapidly dimmed, dropping from the top 10 list of brightest stars in the sky to a ranking in the mid-20s. One explanation for this behavior, which is unprecedented in recent decades, is that the huge star is collapsing in on itself before rebounding in a dramatic supernova explosion that could temporarily outshine the moon at night and even be visible during the day.

Earthlings haven't witnessed such a showstopping supernova in over three centuries.

But there are other possible explanations for Betelgeuse's behavior. First off, it's a variable star that normally pulses in cycles, causing its brightness to fluctuate. This current dip in luminosity is unusually profound, though. It could be that clouds of dust in our line of sight or a cool star spot on the surface of Betelgeuse are exaggerating the dimming.

Whatever is going on, it seems to have stopped getting dimmer.

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"The star has been nearly steady in brightness now over the last 10 days," Villanova University astronomer Edward Guinan told Forbes.

Guinan says this is probably bad news for supernova fans. Although he's not quite sure what is behind Betelgeuse going batty, he doesn't expect it to explode anytime soon.

The next few weeks are still critical for figuring the final fate of the star, however.

Betelgeuse should be coming to the end of a roughly 14-month pulsation cycle now and the stabilization of its luminescence suggests it may be ready to brighten and start burning like normal again.

"If it doesn't, then, I don't know -- all bets are off," said Guinan.