It’s probably nothing: Gravitational wave burst detected near Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse has dimmed recently, prompting some to wonder if it’s about to explode. An explosion might trigger a gravitational wave burst. Betelgeuse is still there. The nearby gravitational wave burst probably means nothing for this star. Still … 

Artist's concept of swirling, overlapping waves.

Gravitational waves are “ripples” in space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the universe. Image via LIGO.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo detectors recorded a “burst” of gravitational waves this week, from an area of sky near the red supergiant Betelgeuse. This unanticipated burst has been dubbed, for now, S200114f. It’s prompting some interesting chatter on Twitter because Betelgeuse has undergone an unusual dimming in recent weeks, and some astronomy enthusiasts have wondered if it were about to explode. Betelgeuse has not exploded. It’s still there. Still, a supernova explosion of Betelgeuse might be linked with a gravitational wave burst. As Jackson Ryan explained on CNET last night (January 14, 2020):

The gravitational waves we’ve detected so far usually relate to extreme cosmic events, like two black holes colliding or neutron stars finally merging after being caught in a death spiral. Burst gravitational waves have not been detected before and scientists hypothesize they may be linked to phenomena such as supernova or gamma ray bursts, producing a tiny ‘pop’ when detected by the observatories.

Astronomer Andy Howell at Las Cumbres Observatory leads a group that studies supernovae and dark energy. He posted some especially informative tweets about Betelgeuse last night.

As Andy said in one of the tweets above, gravitational wave detectors do sometimes detect false positives, about once every 25 years. So that is something to keep in mind.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that Betelgeuse has not exploded. Estimates suggest it won’t explode in our lifetimes … probably.

What’s so great here is the way that astronomers – some of Earth’s most curious people – have reacted, turning their attention and their telescopes toward Betelgeuse and toward the region of the sky from which the gravitational waves apparently originated. What is going on? The verdict isn’t in yet. Probably nothing. Still, many on Twitter last night spoke of going outside to look at Betelgeuse. Their enthusiasm and excitement are contagious!

EarthSky 2020 lunar calendars are available! Nearly out. Order now!

A bright red star on the left. A slightly dimmer red star on the right.

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Brian Ottum kindly provided this direct comparison of Betelgeuse a few years ago, and Betelgeuse in recent weeks. You can see that the star has dimmed noticeably. Brian wrote: “Left is February, 2016. Right is December 31, 2019. Note that the brightness/appearance of all background stars are identical left versus right, but Betelgeuse is definitely fainter on the right.” Thank you, Brian!

Bottom line: The LIGO and Virgo detectors this week recorded a “burst” of gravitational waves, from an area of sky near the red supergiant Betelgeuse, which has recently undergone a mysterious dimming. Hmmmmmm.

Read more about the recent dimming of the star Betelgeuse

Deborah Byrd