An extremely rare astronomical event is occurring late Monday into early Tuesday that should captivate millions of eager viewers across parts of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
An asteroid named Leona will pass directly in front of one of the night sky's biggest and brightest stars, Betelgeuse, briefly blocking its light to produce a fleeting but enthralling eclipse.
While the narrow path of visibility excludes large swaths of Earth's surface area, people living in cities as far-flung as Tajikistan, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Mexico should ready their binoculars and telescopes to witness this remarkable cosmic spectacle.
Origin and Scale of the Two Celestial Bodies
The star that is the focus of this extraordinary event, Betelgeuse, is a red supergiant located approximately 700 light-years from Earth in the prominent constellation Orion. It derived its name from the Arabic phrase meaning "armpit of the central one."
While Betelgeuse appears merely as a dot to the naked eye here on Earth, it is gargantuan in its real proportions, spanning many hundreds of times wider than our comparatively tiny Sun. If Betelgeuse replaced the Sun in our solar system, its surface would extend out past Jupiter.
Despite its immensity, Betelgeuse is a relatively young star at only 10 million years old, whereas our middle-aged Sun is approximately 4.6 billion years old.
The red supergiant is also approaching the end of its life cycle, accumulating material over time until it finally explodes spectacularly as a supernova in an estimated 100,000 more years, give or take a few tens of millennia. Until then, Betelgeuse should remain one of the most prominent fixtures illuminating our night sky.
The asteroid Leona, named for the Spanish observational team that first characterized its orbital path, is located in the asteroid belt separating the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is an oblong, slowly rotating rock roughly 34 miles across at its widest by 50 miles from end to end.
Later tonight, Leona's trajectory will carry it on a rare collision course with Betelgeuse that aligns their paths perfectly to generate a partial or total eclipse that may endure up to 15 seconds at maximum duration.