Astronomers are watching Betelgeuse with anticipation. Something is happening which could teach us about the universe.
In basic astronomy classes, students are exposed to what is known as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It’s a graphic representation of our scientific understanding of stars. We can measure the changes that happen in stars and watch them age. The problem is that stars live so long and we live such a short time that we will never see a star be made, live its life and die. We see young stars which are blue hot and watch blue hot stars cool becoming yellow. We see yellow stars become red. We sometimes see red stars explode becoming novas or supernovas depending upon their size.In 1987 we watched a star explode and saw the production of new elements that had not been there before. But that explosion was so far away that measurements were difficult.
Located in Orion, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest and most recognized stars in the sky. Since it is only 700 light-years away, Betelgeuse is close enough for us to see and measure well. It is huge! In fact, it is so large that if it were located where our Sun is, the edge of it would extend to the orbit of Jupiter and its flares would go beyond the orbit of Neptune!
Watching Betelgeuse, astronomers can see that it is changing rapidly. It is only half as bright as it was five months ago. Because we have never seen a star explode up close, astronomers have an intense interest in what is happening to this nearby star. If Betelgeuse explodes, it will become a supernova. As we watch from Earth with our naked eyes, it would be as bright as our Moon. Watching God forge new elements in Betelgeuse would be quite a show, but it could happen as you read this or it may be 100,000 years in the future.
One of the many conditions necessary for life to exist on our planet is the location of our solar system and our neighbors in the cosmos. A star exploding close to us would bathe our planet in lethal radiation and even incinerate us. Don’t worry, because an object 700-light-years distant is not a threat to Earth. The closest star to us is 4.3 light-years away, and it is nowhere near the nova stage.
Our ignorance of this method of God’s creation is astounding. We can relate to the message of Job 38:31-33. There God mentions the constellation Orion where Betelgeuse is located when He says: “Can you bind the influences of the Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion? Can you bring forth Mazzaroth (the 12 constellations of the zodiac) in his season, or can you guide Arcturus and his sons? Do you know the ordinances of heaven? Can you set the position of them on the Earth?”
Even today with our technology the answer to those questions is “No.” Watching Betelgeuse, we can realize the truth that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalms 19:1).
Yesterday we discussed the question of what real creation is about. Our point was that the study of real creation involves the study of how time, space, and matter/energy came into existence. Those sciences are in the embryonic stage, but they point to there being a purpose that involves wisdom and contributes to our understanding of the nature of God. One important finding of the study of creation is the critical initial mass function of the Sun.
As we study the Sun, we see that much is unique about our star. It is not just an average star of the billions formed from the “big bang” and classified in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. As we watch stars forming today and, as we look at the composition of the galaxy we live in, much stands out in our understanding of the Sun. Our mathematics indicate that there is what we call a critical initial mass function of the Sun, or IMF for short. IMF is the mass needed for star formation to take place. When stars begin to form from the material in the creation, they must have enough mass to allow gravity to fuse hydrogen into helium. If that mass isn’t there, what you have is a brown dwarf. If the mass is .08 of the solar mass, a red dwarf will form.
There are roughly 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, and 300 billion of them are red dwarfs – also called M dwarfs because of their spectral identification. There are roughly 15,000 places in our Milky Way galaxy where we see stars forming, so we can watch the way in which the IMF functions. When our Sun was formed, an IMF had to be carefully chosen so that it would produce a spectral G type star. Other star types such as O, B or F types would be too hot, too active and have too short of a lifespan. The most numerous stars in our galaxy – the red dwarfs mentioned earlier – have similar difficulties with their activity including stellar flares and coronal mass ejections. None of these types of stars can be seen as possible solar systems where life could exist.
On February 23, 1987, a historic explosion was witnessed by astronomers on Earth. A massive star known as Sanduleak -60 degrees 202 exploded. What was previously classified as a supergiant star became a supernova. For the first time since A.D.1054, there was a supernova close enough to the Earth for scientists to observe first-hand what was happening.
Students in high school physics and earth science classes study a diagram known as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It is simply a scattergram of the temperature of stars plotted against their luminosity. Stars begin as very hot blue giant stars. As they cool, they turn white-hot, then red, then brown. Then they may become a cinder. In the case of larger stars, the internal processes change, and they become giant stars which in some cases explode. Because these processes require a very long time, we don’t live long enough to see a single star go through all of these phases. But we can see stars in all of these stages. Seeing a star explode is a very rare event (about once a century), and Sanduleak -60 degrees 202 was thus a fantastic opportunity to see in detail what happens when a star explodes.
There is much to learn from Supernova 1987A. Exploding stars seed space with the heavier elements. We are learning how the elements that make up our world were formed. For those of us who believe God is the engineer of all of this, we can see how God made iron, copper, gold and the materials of the Earth’s crust. The incredible energy and power of the process testify to God’s power and creative wisdom. As we compare this supernova with the one that happened in A.D. 1054, which produced what is now called the Crab Nebula, we see it is different in many ways. In 1 Corinthians 15:41 the Bible tells us that “one star differs from another” and we now know that is true even of exploding stars. This supernova also gives us another tool to measure the size and age of the universe. We have several methods of measuring how far away this supernova is, but they all give us the same answer. The explosion took place 160,000 light years away from us, or 160,000 years ago. We are safe from the incredible radiation because of the huge distance.