It’s about time to throw some credibility to fans of the 2012 apocalypse theory. There is a lot of talk of ancient Mayan calendars, interstellar collisions, and terrestrial polar shifts and while there is minimal scientific relevance to these claims, one cataclysmic event is likely to occur in the next several years. A supernova. Betelgeuse, a star in the Orion constellation is a first magnitude super giant. The size of a star is one of the most important intrinsic features. Bigger stars form faster, live shorter, and die more explosively. Super giants are the last step in a star’s evolution.
All stars start out using hydrogen as nuclear fuel. This hydrogen is fused together to form helium in a very explosive nuclear reaction that “powers” the star. As the hydrogen runs out, the star begins to collapse from a lack of radiative pressure from the core. The collapse of this much mass increases the temperature until the core is hot enough for Helium fusion. This process is repeated as the fuel continues to be consumed, from hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, carbon to silicon, and silicon to iron. It is at this point that the already explosive reactions become even more cataclysmic. All of the previous fusion reactions release energy, but an iron fusion reaction actually requires energy. This process reverses the radiation pressure which causes a irreversible pull towards the center of mass. At its most compressed state, all electrons in the star are compressed into contact with the nucleus against the strong force. The resulting rebound causes one of the most powerful explosions in the universe a supernova.
Since Betelgeuse is near the end of its life as a super giant it is due to supernova in the next several years. When this happens, the resulting explosion will be approximately 10,000 times brighter than our sun, though it will be very distant. The supernova will last for several months, up to even a year. The brightness will block out every star in the night sky and will even be brighter than the moon. It will even be visible in the daytime. The extreme distance will limit any detrimental effects here on Earth (whether it be radiation or charged particles), preventing any poorly done future Hollywood movies. It won’t end the world, but having two suns in the sky will sure look cool.