Astronomers capture best picture yet of the star in Orion’s armpit

It reveals that Betelgeuse’s inner temperature isn’t uniform, which has implications for the giant sun’s future.

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ESO/ALMA/P. Kervella
ESO/ALMA/P. Kervella

Betelgeuse isn't just an etymological inspiration for Michael Keaton's best role, it's a colossal star forming the right shoulder in the well-known constellation Orion. Astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Northern Chile to photograph it, producing the most detailed image yet of any star besides our own sun.

While scientists knew that Betelgeuse's surface wasn't uniform, this high-resolution photo reveals that its inner temperature isn't, either. These temperature fluctuations on the star's surface resemble those happening on our sun's, a similarity more stunning due to the differences between the solar bodies: Betelgeuse is 1400 times larger, meaning if it sat at the center of our solar system, its edges would almost reach Jupiter.

The high-resolution photo might also tell us about the gigantic star's future as it continues to mysteriously lose mass. Astronomer and author of a paper accompanying the image recently published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Iain McDonald of the University of Manchester, told Gizmodo that Betelgeuse's eventual supernova will produce different elements depending on whether it explodes sooner or later. The image will likely give more clues on when that might happen -- but also how elemental production factors in to the universe's creation.

"We want to understand how the process [of element production] works in stars that are long gone," McDonald told Gizmodo, "since it's those stars that let us know how the elements we're made of were made."

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