This Just In — Betelgeuse is still there.

Published by chris on

In late 1975, Spanish General Francisco Franco lingered near death for weeks. He had been Spain’s dictatorial strong-man since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Thousands died as a result of his leadership.

By late 1975, politics in the USA was settling down a bit after a few tumultuous years. Nixon had resigned the summer before, and Gerald Ford was — aside from his pardon of Nixon — a fairly non-controversial figure. The last US troops had left Vietnam in the spring, and the next election cycle hadn’t really kicked in yet (remember when presidential elections didn’t last 3.5 years?).

News was sometimes (blessedly) slow.

So when Franco’s health began to decline, some thought it newsworthy. He was ill enough in the summer of 1974 that Prince (and future King) Juan Carlos took over as the acting head of state. Given his disappearance from the public eye, some theorized that he had actually died, and that the government was covering up the fact. But a few months later, he reappeared, apparently much improved.

He’s dead, Jim.

Just over a year later, however, Franco took ill for the last time. His last public appearance was on October 1, and he fell into a coma on the 30th. He would die three weeks later, but not before US news sources repeatedly reported, sometimes as headline news, that Franco was still alive. This was especially true for NBC news.

Franco died on November 20, 1975, just over a month after the premier of NBC’s Saturday Night (now called Saturday Night Live or simply SNL). One of the principle features of the show was (and still is) the Weekend Update segment.

This just in…

The segment’s original anchor was Chevy Chase, who parlayed the event into a running gag:

In subsequent weeks Chase developed the joke into a parody of the earlier news coverage of Franco’s illness, treating his death as the top story. “This breaking news just in”, Chase would announce – “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!”[3]

Here’s Chase’s original report and a few examples of the follow-up mentions.

(As an aside, the laudatory quote from Richard Nixon is authentic. As is the photo of Franco standing next to Hitler, saluting. Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini worked together and the Spanish Civil War was seen as a “practice run” for World War II.)

Let’s switch gears for a few minutes.

Possibly the best known and most popular winter constellation in the Northern Hemisphere is Orion, the Hunter. Go out on any clear night in the midwinter (February) and look due south around 10 pm and here’s what you will see.

Orion the Hunter
Orion, the Hunter

OK, so you won’t actually see the star names, or the lines, or the artwork. But you probably recognize the pattern. Most people identify Orion by the three stars in his belt. And many will recognize Rigel, his left foot (to the right from our view), as one of the most favored destinations of the Enterprise-D from Star Trek: TNG.

And maybe even a few will know that his right shoulder (on the left from our view) is called Betelgeuse. (Not to be confused with Beetlejuice, the 1988 Tim Burton movie.)

The Red Supergiant

Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the northern night sky (the 11th brightest). It’s a red supergiant which, if it were at the middle of our solar system, would engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and possibly Jupiter. It’s big. And it’s about 430-700 light years from the Sun. Estimates vary and can be imprecise. Which simply means that the light we are seeing from it tonight started its journey at least 400 years ago, and maybe as much as 700 years ago.

So why is Betelgeuse in the news? To make a complex story a bit simpler, it’s because it appears to be dimming. It goes through cycles of dimming and brightening. But it’s been dimmer lately, and scientists are surmising that it may be dying.

For a little more complexity:

According to an article published by National Geographic last December, “decades of photometric data show that Betelgeuse brightens and dims in cycles, with one notable cycle vacillating on a roughly six-year time scale and another rising and falling every 425 days or so.” 

Scientists suspect that the red supergiant Betelgeuse has recently dimmed quite dramatically because those two periodic cycles are overlapping at minimal brightness, according to a report published in the Astronomer’s Telegram by Edward Guinan, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

I’m not dead!

But Betelgeuse isn’t quite dead yet. At least that we know of (see below). It will eventually go supernova and explode, appearing for a brief time brighter than the full moon. The fact that it’s one of the brightest stars in our sky is due to the high rate that it burns. So though it’s a relatively young star — about 10 million years old — it will burn through its fuel much faster than our own sun.

By contrast, our own Sun is about 4.5 billion years old, and is only about half way through its run as a star. And though it’s much more compact than Betelgeuse, it’s about 65% hotter.

Betelgeuse may already be dead

This isn’t a Schrödinger’s Star, or anything like that, where the star is alive and dead at the same time. What I mean is that since it takes anywhere between 400-700 years for the light from Betelgeuse to reach our solar system, the supergiant may already have gone supernova and we just don’t know it yet, because the light from the explosion hasn’t yet reached us.

But it’s more likely that it hasn’t exploded yet, and that it won’t happen soon. Scientists predict that it will explode sometime within the next 100,000 years. And because it’s more than 50 light years from Earth, we won’t have to worry about radiation. But that also means that you or I probably won’t be around to witness it, either.

For the moment, each night when I take the dog out for the last time, I look up. When I come in, I dutifully report to my wife, “Honey, Betelgeuse is still there!”

The mythology

Without getting into the specific myth of Orion, we have to wonder what something like a supernova will mean for how astrologers and other omen-watchers interpret the skies. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a major change like this in the zodiac constellations or the other major constellations that have been recognized for millennia. But at some point, there’s bound to be. Things change. Even things that seem permanent.

If one or two of the main stars in Scorpio or Taurus, for example, went supernova, how might that alter the way we interpret their influence?

You and I may never have to think about it. But someone will. Some day.

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