A big star with a bigger future climbs across the south on winter nights. It’s already one of the biggest and brightest stars in our region of the galaxy. Over the next few million years, though, it’s likely to puff up even more, then end its life as a supernova.

Rigel represents one of the feet of Orion, the hunter. It’s to the right of Orion’s three-star belt in early evening. Rigel is quite bright, and shines blue-white.

Actually, Rigel is a system of several stars. But only one of them, Rigel A, is visible to the eye alone. It’s probably about 865 light-years from Earth. It probably shines at least 125,000 times brighter than the Sun, though, which is why it’s so prominent.

The star is so impressive because it’s a couple of dozen times the Sun’s mass. Heavier stars burn through the nuclear fuel in their cores quickly, so they shine brightly. But they don’t live long. Rigel is only about eight million years old, but it’s aging in a hurry. It’s converted the hydrogen in its core to make helium. Now, it’s converting the helium to even heavier elements.

As this process moves along, Rigel is likely to become much bigger. That’ll make its outer layers cooler, so they’ll glow orange or red. And before long, the process will reach its end. The star will no longer produce nuclear reactions in its core, so the core will collapse, and the star’s outer layers will blast into space — ending Rigel’s life as a spectacular supernova.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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