Astrophysicist Miguel Montargès has a clear memory of the moment the stars became real places to him. He was 7 or 8 years old, looking up from the garden of his parents’ apartment in the south of France. A huge, red star winked in the night. The young space fan connected the star to a map he had studied in an astronomy magazine and realized he knew its name: Betelgeuse.
Something shifted for him. That star was no longer an anonymous speck floating in a vast uncharted sea. It was a destination, with a name.
“I thought, wow, for the first time … I can name a star,” he says. The realization was life-changing.
Since then, Montargès, now at the Paris Observatory, has written his Ph.D. thesis and about a dozen papers about Betelgeuse. He considers the star an old friend, observing it many times a year, for work and for fun. He says good-bye every May when the star slips behind the sun from the perspective of Earth, and says hello again in August when the star comes back.
So in late 2019, when the bright star suddenly dimmed for no apparent reason, Montargès was a little alarmed. Some people speculated that Betelgeuse was about to explode in a brilliant supernova that would outshine the full moon. Astronomers know the star is old and its days are numbered, but Montargès wasn’t ready to see it go.
“It’s my favorite star,” he says. “I don’t want it to die.”
Other researchers, though, were eager to watch Betelgeuse explode in real time. Supernovas mark the violent deaths of stars that are at least eight times as massive as the sun (SN: 11/7/20, p. 20). But astronomers still don’t know what would signal that one is about to blow. The outbursts sprinkle interstellar space with elements that ultimately form the bulk of planets and people — carbon, oxygen, iron (SN: 2/18/17, p. 24). So the question of how supernovas occur is a question of our own origins.
But the explosions are rare — astronomers estimate that one occurs in our galaxy just a few times a century. The last one spotted nearby, SN 1987A, was more than 33 years ago in a neighboring galaxy (SN: 2/18/17, p. 20). Betelgeuse is just one of the many aging, massive stars — called red supergiants — that could go supernova at any moment. But as one of the closest and brightest, Betelgeuse is the one that space enthusiasts know best.
So when the star started acting strangely at the end of last year, Montargès and a small band of Betelgeuse diehards aimed every telescope they could at the dimming giant. Over the following months, the star returned to its usual brightness, and the excitement over an imminent supernova faded. But the flurry of data collected in the rush