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Dust and a cold spell on Betelgeuse could explain why the giant star dimmed

The star Betelgeuse has always been a diva.

Astronomers around the world were startled in late 2019 when Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky, grew dark for several months. Rumors swirled that the star was about to go supernova. It didn’t. But debate over what was going on exploded. Now, newly released images taken before and during the “Great Dimming” suggest what happened: The star’s surface cooled and triggered a cloud of dust that temporarily blocked its light.

“This is the best interpretation we can get with the data that we have … without flying our spaceship to Betelgeuse and seeing what’s going on there,” says astrophysicist Emily Cannon of KU Leuven in Belgium.

Cannon and colleagues used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to take snapshots of Betelgeuse for more than a year. Serendipitously, the team had captured an image of the star in January 2019, months before the dimming began, and could compare that image with others taken in December 2019 and January and March 2020.

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