By The Associated Press
One of the largest and brightest stars in the night sky will momentarily disappear when an asteroid passes in front of it to produce a unique eclipse.
The rare and fleeting spectacle, which will run from Monday night into early Tuesday, should be visible to millions of people along a narrow trail that stretches from Tajikistan and Armenia in Central Asia, through Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain, to Miami and the Florida Keys and, finally, to parts of Mexico.
The star is Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in the constellation Orion. The asteroid is Leona, an elongated space rock that slowly rotates in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Astronomers hope to learn more about Betelgeuse and Leona through the eclipse, which is expected to last no more than 15 seconds. Observing an eclipse of a much dimmer star near Leona in September, a Spanish-led team recently estimated that the asteroid was about 34 miles wide and 50 miles long (55 kilometers wide and 80 kilometers long).
Uncertainties remain about those predictions, as well as about the star's size and expansive atmosphere. It's unclear whether the asteroid will obscure the entire star, producing a total eclipse. Rather, the result could be a "ring of fire" eclipse with a tiny, glowing border around the star. If it's a total eclipse, astronomers aren't sure how many seconds the star will completely disappear, perhaps up to 10 seconds.
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"The scenario we will see is uncertain, which makes the event even more intriguing," explained astronomer Gianluca Masa, founder of the Virtual Telescope Project, which will offer a live webcast from Italy.
At an estimated distance of 700 light-years, Betelgeuse is visible to the naked eye. Binoculars and small telescopes will improve the view. One light-year equals 5.8 trillion miles.
Betelgeuse is thousands of times brighter than our sun and about 700 times larger. It's so big that, if it replaced our sun, it would extend beyond Jupiter, according to NASA.
At only 10 million years old, Betelgeuse is considerably younger than the 4.600 billion-year-old Sun. Scientists expect Betelgeuse to be short-lived, given its mass and the rate at which it burns its material.
After countless centuries of varying brightness, Betelgeuse dimmed dramatically in 2019 when an enormous amount of surface material was ejected into space. The resulting dust cloud temporarily blocked starlight, NASA explained, and within half a year, Betelgeuse was as bright as before.
Scientists expect Betelgeuse to go supernova in a violent explosion within 100,000 years.