By David Dickinson
Have you noticed that Orion the Hunter—one of the most iconic and familiar of the wintertime constellations—is looking a little… different as of late? The culprit is its upper shoulder star Alpha Orionis, aka Betelgeuse, which is looking markedly faint, the faintest it has been for the 21st century.
When will this nearby supernova candidate pop, and what would look like if it did?
The story starts, as all good astronomy and space stories seem to, on Friday night going into a holiday weekend. We started seeing discussion on Betelgeuse trending on social media on the evening of Friday, December 20th, and dug down to the source of the excitement: a December 8th paper on ‘The Fainting of the Nearby Red Supergiant Betelgeuse’ by researchers at Villanova University. Light curve estimates courtesy of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) verified the assertion that the star had indeed faded about one magnitude, or a little over one half from its usual magnitude +0.5 to +1.5. Noticing the sky was clear, we headed up to our parking garage rooftop observing site in downtown Norfolk, Virginia to take a look. Betelgeuse was indeed noticeably fainter, about a shade dimmer than nearby +1st magnitude Aldebaran.
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