Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) is a bright red star in the constellation Orion frequently featured in works of science fiction. A red supergiant, Betelgeuse is one of the largest and most luminous stars known. If it were at the center of our Solar System its surface would extend past the asteroid belt, possibly to the orbit of Jupiter or even beyond, wholly engulfing Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Classified as an M-type supergiant star, and located around 640 light-years from Earth, Betelgeuse shares with the much closer but smaller star Altair (and with R Doradus) the distinction that its image has been resolved by astronomers (see graphic).
In another false-color image obtained by infrared interferometry two large, bright star spots spanning ~10 milliarcseconds are visible on the surface of Betelgeuse, possibly representing enormous convective cells rising from below the supergiant's surface. Because of these, Betelgeuse appears to change shape periodically, with a complex, asymmetric envelope that is the product of a colossal ongoing loss of mass, as huge plumes of gas are continuously expelled from its surface (see "Tony and the Beetles" by Philip K. Dick, below). There is some evidence for the existence of close stellar companions of Betelgeuse, orbiting it within its gaseous envelope (see From a Changeling Star by Jeffrey Carver and the television series Space Battleship Yamato, below).
Astronomers believe that this tremendous star is only 10 million years old, but has evolved rapidly because of its great mass. Currently in a late stage of stellar evolution, it is expected to erupt in a Type II supernova, possibly within the next million years (see From a Changeling Star by Jeffrey Carver, "Transit of Betelgeuse" by Robert R. Chase and Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer, below).
Betelgeuse is the eighth-brightest star in the night sky and second-brightest star in the constellation of Orion, outshining its neighbour Rigel (Beta Orionis) only rarely. Distinctly reddish-tinted, it is a semiregular variable star whose apparent magnitude oscillates between 0.2 and 1.2, the widest range of any first magnitude star. It marks the upper right vertex of the Winter Triangle and center of the Winter Hexagon.
There is considerable controversy about the Arabic language origin of the name Betelgeuse, with some dozens of possible derivations and spellings proposed and used across history. A theory that is gaining wide acceptance is that of Paul Kunitzsch, Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Munich, who has proposed that the full name of the "ruddy star" Betelgeuse is a corruption of the Arabic (يد الجوزاء yad al-jauzā' ) meaning the hand of the al-jauzā, where al-jauzā is the Central One, or Orion. Since, prior to the scientific revolution, the study of astronomy was intimately connected with mythology and astrology, the ruddy star—like the red planet Mars—was for millennia closely associated with the archetypes of iron and war, and by extension the motifs of death and rebirth. In South African mythology, Betelgeuse was a deadly lion stalking three zebras represented by the stars in Orion's belt in the age-old drama of predation and nourishment. Betelgeuse has also appeared variously in the folklore of cultures including ancient Persia, India, China, and Japan.
Uses of Betelgeuse
Although popular as specific location used in fiction (literal), Betelgeuse is also referred to in fictional works for its metaphorical (meta) and mythological (myth) associations as a prominent cultural referent for centuries, if not millennia, of human history.
The globular cluster M13 (also known as the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules). In the Perry Rhodan series it is the location of Arkon, the homeworld of the declining civilization of the Arkonides and the heart of the Great Imperium. ESA/Hubble and NASA.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), novel by Thomas Hardy. Betelgeuse makes a single appearance in this book, as a companion of other prominent stars ("The kingly brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a steely glitter, the star called Capella was yellow, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse shone with a fiery red"). (sky)* Betelguese, a trip through hell (1908), a poetic work by Jean Louis De Esque, where hell is located on Betelguese because De Esque believed that it was "a celestial pariah, an outcast, the largest of all known comets or outlawed suns in the universe". "And Betelguese, an evil lair / With infernal, warring legions / Careens as stars shed tears of woe." The poem is rife with descriptions of the terrifying aspects of hell, those that dwell there, and the actions thereof.
Storm and Echo (1948), novel by Frederic Prokosch. Prokosch wrote "travel novels" that were a blend of travelogue, story, philosophy, symbolism, and fantasy. In Storm and Echo, a story about tropical travels, he wrote: "And that night for the first time I came face to face with it. The real unutterable thing: the thing I'd never dared to visualize. Death. My own death. The possibility, corrupt and glaring, of my own extinction. It was like swimming alone at night in a hot, shoreless sea. I felt abominably alone. Twelve men and a woman marching in a column through the Equator. No other trace of humanity. No trace of history even. It might for all we knew have been the wastes of Betelgeuse." (meta)
The Caine Mutiny (1951), novel by Herman Wouk. Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) has been snooping in the radio shack, and he throws a tantrum when he discovers that the Caine is merely copying the Pearl "harbor circuit" broadcast from the attack cargo ship Betelgeuse rather than mounting its own radio guard. He is later confronted by Communications officer Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray) in the shower: "'[Sure] we pick up the skeds from the Betelgeuse. They guard for all destroyers in port. It's standard procedure,' [shouts] Keefer." (meta)
"Tony and the Beetles" (1953), short story by Philip K. Dick. World-by-world, Terran colonists have driven the Beetles—the original inhabitants of the Betelgeuse system—from the star's 23 planets. This is the last planet, and the aliens' last stand. Young Tony Rossi has moral qualms and shiny-shelled Beetle playmates, much to the disgust of his father, and trouble is coming. Author Dick paints an accurate picture of the appearance of Betelgeuse as an inconstant primary in the sky: "The reddish daylight swelled; Betelgeuse was rising quietly and majestically ... [but it was] an erratic and undependable sun, not at all like Sol."
"Shell Game" (1954), short story by Philip K. Dick. A group of paranoid mental patients long stranded on Betelgeuse II discover the remains of their shipwrecked hospital vessel "sunk in the half-liquid ooze that made up the surface of Betelgeuse II. Nocturnal phosphorescence danced and flitted over the bog."
Justine (1957), Alexandria Quartet novel by Lawrence Durrell. Justine's husband Nessim builds her an exquisite summer pleasure house, at a tiny oasis on the coastal desert between Alexandria and Benghazi. She in turn builds him a small observatory on the premises. "Here Nessim would sit night after night in the winter, dressed in his old rust colored abba, staring gravely at Betelgeuse, or hovering over books of calculations for all the world like some medieval soothsayer."
The Sirens of Titan (1959), novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Wealthy explorer Winston Niles Rumfoord, accompanied by his dog, "had run his private space ship right into the heart of an uncharted chrono-synclastic infundibulum two days out of Mars ... Now Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak existed as wave phenomena—apparently pulsing in a distorted spiral with its origin in the Sun and its terminal in Betelguese. The earth was about to intercept that spiral." As long as the Earth remains in the infundibulum Rumfoord, who has suffered total enlightenment, is restored to material form on the planet and functions in the story as an infallible prognosticator.
The Red Eye of Betelgeuse [Rotes Auge Beteigeuze] and The Earth Dies [Die Erde Stirbt] (1962), installments 48–49 [40–41 in the U.S. edition] of the Perry Rhodan series of space-opera pulp novelettes, both installments written by Walter Ernsting as by Clark Darlton. In these installments of the long-running English version of the [originally German] series, Perry Rhodan battles the Springers (a race of merchants descended from the Arkonides of the Great Imperium in globular cluster M13—see graphic) who plan to colonize the Earth. Rhodan has to simulate the destruction of our world in order to divert the ever more intrusive Springers, and give humanity the time it needs to develop into a galactic power. Deceived by him, and believing it to be the Earth, the Springers attack Betelgeuse III and destroy it.
Planet of the Apes (1963), novel by Pierre Boulle. Professor Antelle, a scientific genius of Earth, has invented a spaceship that can travel at nearly the speed of light. He and his companions voyage to the star Betelgeuse, said to be "about three hundred light years distant from our planet", and "emit[ting] red and orange lights"; at the end of their spacefaring they awaken from cryosleep to discover themselves near an earthlike planet that they name Soror (Sister). The crew lands, is overcome by a tribe of primitive humans, and then captured by intelligent gorillas and chimpanzees, who enslave them and treat them as dumb beasts. At the novel's climax, they make a startling discovery about the history of Soror. They escape and return to the Earth, where they make an even more startling discovery.[note 1]
Dune (1965) and other novels in the Dune universe by Frank Herbert. Bela Tegeuse is the common name of Kuentsing V, third stopping place of the Zensunni (Fremen) forced migration. This name is a probable corruption of Betelgeuse.
Starmasters' Gambit (1973), translated from the French novel Le Gambit des Etoiles (1958) written by Gérard Klein. The human sector of the galaxy is governed from Betelgeuse. Protagonist Jerg Algan journeys to the Betelgeuse system to deliver a crucial message from the "Masters" to the galactic government.
"Rummage and Loss" (1977), short story by David Black published in Harper's Magazine. In the story, Black reminisces about Jacques-Louis David's neoclassical painting of Homer Reciting his Verses to the Greeks: "The only other place I had seen people in togas before was in Flash Gordon movies ... the scene struck me as classic science fiction: an elder of Betelgeuse warns the cosmic council about the invasion of the Centauri locust-gods." (myth)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), novel and Radio Series by Douglas Adams. Betelgeuse "was star system XY8S Z GAMMA and the home system of both Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox. The life forms of Betelgeuse planets are carbon based."
The Robots of Dawn (1983), novel by Isaac Asimov. Detective Elijah Baley, fresh from his detecting successes in The Caves of Steel, is summoned to the Spacer world Aurora (Dawn) to investigate a case of "roboticide": The mind of R. Jander Panell, a humaniform robot similar to R. Daneel Olivaw, has been destroyed with a robot block ("mental freeze-out"). On his approach to Aurora he tries out an astrosimulator which projects a view of space directly onto his visual cortex; wishing to get a view of his nearby destination, he uses the star Betelgeuse as a reference point.
From a Changeling Star (1989), novel by Jeffrey Carver. Across the galaxy, tensions are rising between the Tandesko Triune and the Auricle Alliance. Nevertheless, scientists of both sides have come together in Project Starmuse, to observe the giant star Betelgeuse as it goes supernova (see graphic).
"Transit of Betelgeuse" (1990), novelette published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact by Robert R. Chase. The spaceship Endeavor attempts to rescue the human inhabitants of the Betelgeuse system shortly before it explodes as a supernova (see graphic). In the sequel novelette "Endeavor" (Analog, 2005) the rescue ship, with refugees aboard, must outrun the rapidly expanding supernova remnant.
Calculating God (2000), novel written by Robert J. Sawyer. The alien visitor Hollus comes here to study accumulated human knowledge, with the intention of gathering evidence about the existence of God. At the end of the novel, the star Betelgeuse becomes a supernova in the sky of Earth, threatening all life within hundreds of light-years, and now humanity (see graphic). Hollus explains that the actual cataclysm was purposely ignited centuries ago by the physically moribund civilization of Groombridge 1618 III in order to sterilize the stellar neighborhood, an act performed to protect from the meddling of nearby races the otherwise vulnerable virtual reality machinery that would house and immortalize the dying species' personalities.
The Woman Without a World (2017), novel by M.D. Cooper. Betelgeuse went nova around the year 7500, eventually shifting the locations of stars near 58 Eridani (called Bollam's World in the series), hundreds of light-years away. This initially confuses the protagonist, Katrina, as to her location after her ship emerges in 8511 from a dark matter-induced time dilation phenomenon that trails behind Kapteyn's Star.
The pink arrow labeled α indicates Betelgeuse. Bellatrix is labeled as γ. These form the shoulders of Orion
Film and television
Quicksand, 1950 film. At approximately 16 minutes and 25 seconds into the film, actress Jeanne Cagney directs Mickey Rooney's attention to Betelgeuse. She first pronounces it as 'Beetle-jurz'. Rooney replies, "Who?" Cagney repeats the name and then says, "'Beetlejuice', Dave used to call it."
In the TV series Lost In Space (1965-1968), the second-season episode "Treasure of the Lost Planet" (1967) involves a hunt for the long-lost loot of a space pirate named Beelibones, who stole something valuable from a planet in the Betelgeuse (mispronounced "Betelgeezy") system.
Space Battleship Yamato (1974–75), Japanese anime series written by Leiji Matsumoto and Yoshinobu Nishizaki, and directed by Leiji Matsumoto. The surface of the Earth is rendered uninhabitable by a radioactive meteor attack launched by aliens from the planet Gamilas in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Informed of the availability of a global decontamination device from a different, friendlier LMC planet, humans secretly build a huge intergalactic retrieval ship incorporating the hulk of the World War II battleship Yamato. In the 12th of 26 episodes, the starship Yamato is lured into a trap near Betelgeuse and escapes by passing out of ken through the star's corona.
Blade Runner (1982), film. Betelgeuse (α Ori) and Bellatrix (γ Ori) are the two shoulders of the hunter figure in the constellation Orion (see graphic). In his much-quoted Tears in rain soliloquy, which has been described as "perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history", the dying replicantRoy Batty declares, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. [pause] Time to die." See also Gamma Orionis (Bellatrix).
Beetlejuice (1988), film written by Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren and Larry Wilson, and directed by Tim Burton. The titular character is named Betelgeuse, an undead "bio-exorcist" who gets rid of living apparitions rather than dead ones. The alternate spelling comes from a game of charades he plays to reveal his name without directly saying it. (meta)
Space Dandy (2014), Japanese anime series directed by Shinichiro Watanabe and produced by Bones. Betelgeuse is the home world of the Betelgeusians, notably Meow. The star system is the number one consumer of katsuobushi (dried tuna flakes). While there are 65 billion Betelgeuseans, it is unknown how many of them actually inhabit the Betelgeuse system. Unlike most planets shown in the series, Planet Betelgeuse resembles to the current Earth greatly on the surface. Meow's hometown is shown to be much like contemporary rural Japan, and his family lives in a modern house complete with wiring, water supply, and modern amenities.
Re:Zero -Starting Life In Another World- (2016), Japanese anime series and light novel. Romanée-Conti Petelgeuse is one of the great seven sins and the archbishop of Sloth.
Bucky O'Hare (1984–present), comic series created by Larry Hama and Michael Golden. The series is set in a parallel universe (the aniverse), where there is war between the inept but fundamentally decent United Animals Federation (run by mammals) and the sinister Toad Empire, which is ruled by a vast and manipulative computer system, KOMPLEX. Betelgeuse is the home system of a race of muscular orange-furred baboons.
Bételgeuse (2000–2005), series of comic books by Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira (as by Léo). The series is set on a planet of the Betelgeuse star system. The series comprises five volumes: La Planète (The Planet, 2000), Les Survivants (The Survivors, 2001), L'expédition (The Expedition, 2002), Les Cavernes (The Caves, 2003) and L'autre (The Other, 2005).
BattleTech (1984–present), wargame and related products launched by The FASA Corporation. Although Capella is the former governing system of the Capellan Confederation Successor State, the principal players in the Confederation's diminutive military-industrial complex are Aldis Industries and Firmir Weaponry, both located in the Betelgeuse system. These armorers are generalists, producing cheap, flexible weapons that function well in a variety of combat conditions.
Vattle Giuce (1991), a shoot 'em up Game Boy title developed by IGS. The game's Japanese title (ヴァトルギウス) appears to be a mistransliteration of Betelgeuse, or was possibly just a deliberate attempt at wordplay, such as a conjugation of battle and geuse.
Star Control II (1992), computer game developed by Toys for Bob and published by Accolade. The Syreen lived in idyllic peace until their homeworld Syra was destroyed in a cataclysmic impact with a rogue asteroid. After enduring a mass exodus from their dying planet, and a series of unplanned military adventures and reverses, they are finally given a new homeworld by the Ur-Quan super-race: The earthlike planet Betelgeuse I, which they name Gaia. The name "Syreen" is a play on the mythical temptresses called sirens because of the alluring nature of Syrene females. As with many other stars of the game, Star Control's Betelgeuse has little in common with the real one, being a blue dwarf instead of a red supergiant.
Betelgeuse, along with other stars in the Winter Triangle, Summer Triangle, and Winter Hexagon, comprise parts of the Tellarknight archetype in the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game. Together with the other defining vertices of the Winter Triangle, Procyon and Sirius, "Satellarknight Betelgeuse" is released in the New Challengers Booster Pack (2014), with Stellarknight Triverr representing the Winter Triangle itself.
PlanetSide 2 (2012), a MMOFPS developed by Daybreak Games, has a Vanu Sovereignty LMG called Betelgeuse. It was initially considered extremely overpowered by most players because of its infinite ammo and high mobility. The mobility was later reduced, but compensated with better accuracy, so it still remains as one of the most powerful weapons in the game.
Betelgeuse is referred to as a location in space or the center of a planetary system unusually often in fiction. For a list containing many stars and planetary systems that have a less extensive list of references, see Stars and planetary systems in fiction.
Notes and references
^In the 1968 film version (having the same name as the novel, Planet of the Apes), Commander George Taylor (Charlton Heston) states, "We're some 320 light years from Earth on an unnamed planet in orbit around a star in the constellation of Orion." In the novel Planet of the Apes that star is Betelgeuse. The distance declared by Heston in the film accords well with the value stated for Betelgeuse early in the novel—"about three hundred light years distant from our planet" (notwithstanding that the current best value for the distance to Betelgeuse is at least 500 ly from the Earth). It is also true that no other major star in Orion is anywhere near 320 light years away. In spite of this narrowing of the field of candidates, circumstantial evidence weighs against the film's destination sun being identified as Betelgeuse: rather than looming crimson in the sky as a red supergiant, it appears indistinguishable from the Sun of our own planet—where in fact the film was made.
In Boulle's novel, the spacefarers do not "awaken from cryosleep"—indeed, they do not utilize cryosleep at all, but remain awake during the nearly two years of ship-time spent on the journey. It is in the 1968 film version that so-called cryosleep is used by the American astronauts; the astronaut Taylor (portrayed by Charlton Heston) refers to "the long sleep" of nearly a year of ship-time during which his crew spends the majority of their voyage towards the unnamed star that is their destination.
^Gilliland, Ronald L; Dupree, Andrea K (May 1996). "First Image of the Surface of a Star with the Hubble Space Telescope". Astrophysical Journal Letters. 463 (1): L29. Bibcode:1996ApJ...463L..29G. doi:10.1086/310043. The yellowish red "image" or "photo" of Betelgeuse usually seen is actually not a picture of the red giant but rather a mathematically generated image based on the photograph. The photograph was actually of much lower resolution: The entire Betelgeuse image fit entirely within a 10x10 pixel area on the Hubble Space Telescope's Faint Object Camera. The actual images were oversampled by a factor of 5 with bicubic spline interpolation, then deconvolved (see Plate L2).