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You’ve probably seen the news: Betelgeuse, Orion’s second brightest star (to the upper left of his famous belt), has dimmed markedly in recent months, leading to speculation that its demise may be imminent. First things first: No one alive today is likely to see Betelgeuse go supernova. Models suggest that its death is still around 100,000 years off. The real story is how we know that Betelgeuse is acting peculiarly. With thousands of variable stars in the heavens, professional astronomers simply can’t keep track of all of them. So, in 1882, Harvard’s Edward Pickering proposed enlisting amateur observers to monitor stellar variation. By 1910, a small army of amateur variable star observers were outdoing the pros. Within a year, to coordinate and standardize this flood of data, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) was chartered. To date, the AAVSO has amassed over 34 million variable star observations, a crowdsourcing effort long pre-dating the internet. With hundreds of observers estimating stellar brightnesses, data quality is high because the inevitable errors tend to average out.

Thanks to the AAVSO, Betelgeuse’s variation over the past century is well characterized, with its major cycles lasting 425 days, and smaller oscillations with periods of a few months and nearly six years, making it a semi-regular variable. It’s currently the dimmest it’s been since the AAVSO’s inception, but most astronomers believe this is a minor excursion from normality that will reverse soon. Variable star monitoring is approaching a watershed. The Vera Rubin Observatory’s new wide-field telescope, capable of observing the entire available night sky every few days, is slated to begin operations later this year. Soon, AAVSO members may be shifting their efforts from staring into telescope eyepieces to sifting through the deluge of VRO’s data. Next column: Mars plays lunar peekaboo.

You’ve probably seen the news: Betelgeuse, Orion’s second brightest star (to the upper left of his famous belt), has dimmed markedly in recent months, leading to speculation that its demise may be imminent. First things first: No one alive today is likely to see Betelgeuse go supernova. Models suggest that its death is still around 100,000 years off. The real story is how we know that Betelgeuse is acting peculiarly. With thousands of variable stars in the heavens, professional astronomers simply can’t keep track of all of them. So, in 1882, Harvard’s Edward Pickering proposed enlisting amateur observers to monitor stellar variation. By 1910, a small army of amateur variable star observers were outdoing the pros. Within a year, to coordinate and standardize this flood of data, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) was chartered. To date, the AAVSO has amassed over 34 million variable star observations, a crowdsourcing effort long pre-dating the internet. With hundreds of observers estimating stellar brightnesses, data quality is high because the inevitable errors tend to average out.

Thanks to the AAVSO, Betelgeuse’s variation over the past century is well characterized, with its major cycles lasting 425 days, and smaller oscillations with periods of a few months and nearly six years, making it a semi-regular variable. It’s currently the dimmest it’s been since the AAVSO’s inception, but most astronomers believe this is a minor excursion from normality that will reverse soon. Variable star monitoring is approaching a watershed. The Vera Rubin Observatory’s new wide-field telescope, capable of observing the entire available night sky every few days, is slated to begin operations later this year. Soon, AAVSO members may be shifting their efforts from staring into telescope eyepieces to sifting through the deluge of VRO’s data. Next column: Mars plays lunar peekaboo.

You’ve probably seen the news: Betelgeuse, Orion’s second brightest star (to the upper left of his famous belt), has dimmed markedly in recent months, leading to speculation that its demise may be imminent.

First things first: No one alive today is likely to see Betelgeuse go supernova. Models suggest that its death is still around 100,000 years off.

The real story is how we know that Betelgeuse is acting peculiarly. With thousands of variable stars in the heavens, professional astronomers simply can’t keep track of all of them. So, in 1882, Harvard’s Edward Pickering proposed enlisting amateur observers to monitor stellar variation.

By 1910, a small army of amateur variable star observers were outdoing the pros. Within a year, to coordinate and standardize this flood of data, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) was chartered.

To date, the AAVSO has amassed over 34 million variable star observations, a crowdsourcing effort long pre-dating the internet. With hundreds of observers estimating stellar brightnesses, data quality is high because the inevitable errors tend to average out.

Thanks to the AAVSO, Betelgeuse’s variation over the past century is well characterized, with its major cycles lasting 425 days, and smaller oscillations with periods of a few months and nearly six years, making it a semi-regular variable. It’s currently the dimmest it’s been since the AAVSO’s inception, but most astronomers believe this is a minor excursion from normality that will reverse soon.

Variable star monitoring is approaching a watershed. The Vera Rubin Observatory’s new wide-field telescope, capable of observing the entire available night sky every few days, is slated to begin operations later this year. Soon, AAVSO members may be shifting their efforts from staring into telescope eyepieces to sifting through the deluge of VRO’s data.

Next column: Mars plays lunar peekaboo.

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Chris Anderson manages the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory in Twin Falls. He can be reached at 732-6663 or canderson@csi.edu.

Chris Anderson manages the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory in Twin Falls. He can be reached at 732-6663 or canderson@csi.edu.

Chris Anderson manages the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory in Twin Falls. He can be reached at 732-6663 or canderson@csi.edu.

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