June 16, 2021 — When Betelgeuse, a bright orange star in the constellation of Orion, became visibly darker in late 2019 and early 2020, the astronomy community was puzzled. A team of astronomers have now published new images of the star’s surface, taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), that clearly show how its brightness changed. The new research reveals that the star was partially concealed by a cloud of dust, a discovery that solves the mystery of the “Great Dimming” of Betelgeuse.
Betelgeuse’s dip in brightness — a change noticeable even to the naked eye — led Miguel Montargès and his team to point ESO’s VLT towards the star in late 2019. An image from December 2019, when compared to an earlier image taken in January of the same year, showed that the stellar surface was significantly darker, especially in the southern region. But the astronomers weren’t sure why.
The team continued observing the star during its Great Dimming, capturing two other never-before-seen images in January 2020 and March 2020. By April 2020, the star had returned to its normal brightness.
“For once, we were seeing the appearance of a star changing in real time on a scale of weeks,” says Montargès, from the Observatoire de Paris, France, and KU Leuven, Belgium. The images now published are the only ones we have that show Betelgeuse’s surface changing in brightness over time.
In their new study, published today in Nature, the team revealed that the mysterious dimming was caused by a dusty veil shading the star, which in turn was the result of a drop in temperature on Betelgeuse’s stellar surface.
Betelgeuse’s surface regularly changes as giant bubbles of gas move, shrink and swell within the star. The team concludes that some time before the Great Dimming, the star ejected a large gas bubble that moved away from it. When a patch of the surface cooled down shortly after, that temperature decrease was enough for the gas to condense into solid dust.
“We have directly witnessed the formation of so-called stardust,” says Montargès, whose study provides evidence that dust formation can occur very quickly and close to a star’s surface. “The dust expelled from cool evolved stars, such as the ejection we’ve just witnessed, could go on to become the building blocks of terrestrial planets and life,” adds Emily Cannon, from KU Leuven, who was also involved in the study.
Part of the world-wide effort to scan and identify near-Earth objects, the European Space Agency’s Test-Bed Telescope 2 (TBT2), a technology demonstrator hosted at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, has now started operating. Working alongside its northern-hemisphere partner telescope, TBT2 will keep a close eye on the sky for asteroids that could pose a risk to Earth, testing hardware and software for a future telescope network.
“To be able to calculate the risk posed by potentially hazardous objects in the Solar System, we first need a census of these objects. The TBT project is a step in that direction,” says Ivo Saviane, the site manager for ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.
The project, which is a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA), “is a test-bed to demonstrate the capabilities needed to detect and follow-up near-Earth objects with the same telescope system,” says ESA’s Head of the Optical Technologies Section Clemens Heese, who is leading this project.
The 56-cm telescope at ESO’s La Silla and TBT1, its identical counterpart located at the ESA’s deep-space ground station at Cebreros in Spain, will act as precursors to the planned ‘Flyeye’ telescope network, a separate project that ESA is developing to survey and track fast-moving objects in the sky. This future network will be entirely robotic; software will perform real-time scheduling of observations and, at the end of the day, it will report the positions and other information about the objects detected. The TBT project is designed to show that the software and hardware work as expected.
“The start of observations of TBT2 at La Silla will enable the observing system to work in its intended two-telescope configuration, finally fulfilling the project’s objectives,” says Heese.
While seriously harmful asteroid impacts on Earth are extremely rare, they are not inconceivable. Earth has been periodically bombarded with both large and small asteroids for billions of years, and the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event, which caused some 1,600 injuries, most due to flying splinters and broken glass, further raised the public’s awareness of the threat posed by near-Earth objects. Larger objects do more damage, but are thankfully easier to spot and the orbits of known large asteroids are already thoroughly studied. However, it is estimated that there are large numbers of smaller, yet-undiscovered objects we are unaware of that could do serious damage if they were to hit a populated area.
That’s where TBT and the future planned network of Flyeye telescopes come in. Once fully operational the network’s design would allow it to survey the night sky to track fast-moving objects, a significant advancement in Europe’s capacity to spot potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.
MARCH 30 — New observations with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) indicate that the rogue comet 2I/Borisov, which is only the second and most recently detected interstellar visitor to our Solar System, is one of the most pristine ever observed. Astronomers suspect that the comet most likely never passed close to a star, making it an undisturbed relic of the cloud of gas and dust it formed from.
Comet 2I/Borisov was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov in August 2019 and was confirmed to have come from beyond the Solar System a few weeks later. “2I/Borisov could represent the first truly pristine comet ever observed,” says Stefano Bagnulo of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, Northern Ireland, UK, who led the new study published today in Nature Communications. The team believes that the comet had never passed close to any star before it flew by the Sun in 2019.
Bagnulo and his colleagues used the FORS2 instrument on ESO’s VLT, located in northern Chile, to study 2I/Borisov in detail using a technique called polarimetry. Since this technique is regularly used to study comets and other small bodies of our Solar System, this allowed the team to compare the interstellar visitor with our local comets.
The team found that 2I/Borisov has polarimetric properties distinct from those of Solar System comets, with the exception of Hale–Bopp. Comet Hale–Bopp received much public interest in the late 1990s as a result of being easily visible to the naked eye, and also because it was one of the most pristine comets astronomers had ever seen. Prior to its most recent passage, Hale–Bopp is thought to have passed by our Sun only once and had therefore barely been affected by solar wind and radiation. This means it was pristine, having a composition very similar to that of the cloud of gas and dust it — and the rest of the Solar System — formed from some 4.5 billion years ago.
By analyzing the polarization together with the color of the comet to gather clues on its composition, the team concluded that 2I/Borisov is in fact even more pristine than Hale–Bopp. This means it carries untarnished signatures of the cloud of gas and dust it formed from.
“The fact that the two comets are remarkably similar suggests that the environment in which 2I/Borisov originated is not so different in composition from the environment in the early Solar System,” says Alberto Cellino, a co-author of the study, from the Astrophysical Observatory of Torino, National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), Italy.
Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at ESO in Germany who studies comets and other near-Earth objects but was not involved in this new study, agrees. “The main result — that 2I/Borisov is not like any other comet except Hale–Bopp — is very strong,” he says, adding that “it is very plausible they formed in very similar conditions.”
“The arrival of 2I/Borisov from interstellar space represented the first opportunity to study the composition of a comet from another planetary system and check if the material that comes from this comet is somehow different from our native variety,” explains Ludmilla Kolokolova, of the University of Maryland in the US, who was involved in the Nature Communications research.
Bagnulo hopes astronomers will have another, even better, opportunity to study a rogue comet in detail before the end of the decade. “ESA is planning to launch Comet Interceptor in 2029, which will have the capability of reaching another visiting interstellar object, if one on a suitable trajectory is discovered,” he says, referring to an upcoming mission by the European Space Agency.