THE GREAT Collapsing Hrung Disaster of the Year 03758 is shrouded in mystery. All that is known about this event, mentioned in a footnote to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, by Douglas Adams, is that the only survivor was the father of one of the story’s main characters, Ford Prefect—and that it took place on one of the planets orbiting Betelgeuse.
Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star in Orion, a prominent constellation that spans the celestial equator. It is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, easily visible to the naked eye. It has around ten times the mass of the sun, and if it were at the centre of the solar system its outer edge would stretch beyond the orbit of Mars.
Betelgeuse shines more brightly than the sun partly because it is bigger and thus has more fuel, but also because it is burning through that fuel faster. As a result, it will die much sooner. The sun is around halfway through its 10bn-year lifespan. Betelgeuse’s span will be about 10m years, and it is close to the end of that period—perhaps very close. For, in the past few weeks, astronomers have watched it getting precipitously dimmer and that has made them wonder: could this be a signal that Betelgeuse’s time has come?
When a star such as Betelgeuse runs out of fuel the nuclear reactions in its core which keep it shining stop...