Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 12:51 UK

Sharp view of 'Orion's shoulder'

Betelgeuse (ESO)
Betelgeuse is one of the brightest objects in the night sky

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility in Chile has taken the sharpest pictures yet of Betelgeuse.

The star, which famously sits on the shoulder of Orion, is positioned some 640 light-years away and is one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

The VLT used special image processing techniques to acquire the new pictures.

Betelgeuse is so big that if it were at the centre of our Solar System its surface would extend almost out to the orbit of Jupiter.

Astronomers call the star a red supergiant, an "ageing" object that has used up its hydrogen fuel and is now burning helium at its core.

Given its size and mass, Betelgeuse could eventually collapse and explode in a supernova; although this may be many tens of thousands of years away.

If that happens, the spectacle will be visible to the naked eye on Earth, even in daylight.

The VLT images show the star to be shedding large amounts of material in a vast plume of gas and dust almost as large as our Solar System. The gas in Betelgeuse's atmosphere is also moving up and down rapidly.

The pictures give new insights into how red supergiants behave as they live out their end days.

The research has been presented in two papers to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The VLT is operated by the European Southern Observatory organisation.

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