Dwellers of the fictional "Star Wars" planet Tatooine live under two suns. Earthlings may soon enjoy the same distinction, according to a report in Australia's News.com that is provoking scorn in parts of the scientific community. Betelgeuse, the ninth-brightest star visible to humans, is expected to transform itself from a "super red giant" to a "supernova." If it does so as soon as the end of 2012, the News.com report suggests, "we could see a second sun light up the sky, if only for a matter of weeks." Others say the process could take another million years and that the 2012 prediction is just apocalyptic wishful thinking. Here's a brief guide:
What prompted this speculation?
Astrophysicists have noticed that Betelgeuse, the second-biggest star in the universe, is losing mass, indicating that a gravitational collapse is set to occur. "The star will literally collapse in upon itself and it will do so very quickly," says physicist Brad Carter, as quoted by News.com. Earthlings will have a "front-row seat" for the eventual explosion, says Alasdair Wilkins at IO9. Betelgeuse, he adds, is "one of the brightest and biggest stars in our galactic neighborhood — if you dropped it in our Solar System, it would extend all the way out to Jupiter, leaving Earth completely engulfed."
So when is this explosion going to happen?
While it's possible that Betelgeuse will explode in 2012, the event "may not occur for a million years," says William Lee Adams in Time. Other commentators are more openly dismissive of the 2012 prediction: The "two suns" hype is a lot of hot air, scoffs Ian O'Neill at Discover, and the theory of Betelgeuse's imminent explosion — propagated partly by believers of a coming, Mayan-predicted doomsday — is "complete garbage." First of all, "there is absolutely no indication that the star will explode in the next year or so," and besides, "even the most advanced telescopes and sophisticated computer models cannot predict an exploding star with that precision."
When it does happen, will it be bad for Earth?
No. Betelgeuse is too far away to harm our planet and if it did someday appear as a second sun, it would only shine a fraction as brightly as the one we're used to. Wilkins says that, although uninformed observers are warning of dangerous ramifications, "as with pretty much all doomsday speculation, you can just ignore it."