By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
There’s something reassuring about looking up at a clear night sky and seeing a familiar figure shining over you. For me—and probably for a lot of people in the Northern Hemisphere—the first constellation I could easily pick out was Orion. The mythical hunter followed my military family around multiple duty stations as I was growing up, and he now sparkles above my backyard in D.C. each winter. He’s a comforting sight, in part because I know this stellar pattern has been a celestial constant for humans for thousands of years.
But it’s an even more awe-inspiring moment when the universe reminds us that nothing lasts forever.
In the fall of 2019, the normally bright red giant star that makes up Orion’s “shoulder” started to fade, and astronomers started to freak out. Seen with the naked eye, this star, dubbed Betelgeuse, usually looks like the same ruddy dot of light, but astronomers know it’s actually a being in flux, fading and brightening in regular cycles. The difference was that this dimming was unusually extreme, and a few experts told our Nadia Drake in December that the aging star might be gearing up for an explosive demise—a supernova that would be so bright in our skies it would shine even during the day.
I have to admit, I was filled with a mix of relief and disappointment when Betelgeuse did ultimately brighten back up last week, ending the supernova speculation. Still, as Nadia points out in an update to the case, the event presents some fascinating mysteries yet to be solved, and it speaks to how dynamic our seemingly predictable night sky actually is. For me, the biggest comfort astronomy can offer is when, at the end of a tough day full of troubling world events, I can look up at the stars and be reminded that there is still so much wonder in the cosmos waiting to delight and inspire us.
Watch: The trailer for the new season of Cosmos, premiering at 8 p.m. ET Monday on the National Geographic Channel. Here are past episodes.
Your Instagram photo of the day
CSI Guatemala: Advances in DNA technology are helping solve cold cases from Guatemala's civil war, creating hope for families who have spent years wondering what became of their loved ones. Here, a technician prepares a skull for x-ray, which can help pinpoint a cause of death, at the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation.
Read: Decades after 45,000 people vanished in Guatemala, a skeleton finally gets a name
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Today in a minute
Coronavirus update: The United States has been hampered by defective diagnostic kits and highly restrictive rules for administering COVID-19 tests, both of which may have contributed to the early spread of the virus. Now, weeks after the start of the outbreak, the nation is critically short of the medical supplies it needs, Nat Geo’s Nsikan Akpan reports. The delays have prompted concerns about the exchange of information at this critical time, says the New York Times. Another concern: whether the cost of screening and fear of lost work time would keep economically strapped people from getting tested, the Washington Post reports.
Dino DNA?: Researchers have found hints of DNA and preserved cellular structures in the fossilized cartilage of a dinosaur’s brain dated back about 75 million years. “It’s a sub-cellular level of preservation that’s never been reported before in a vertebrate,” study author Alida Bailleul tells Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko.
Golden arches: Often underappreciated, the arches on our feet play a key role in foot stiffness, making us able to walk and run with ease, a new study shows. The research has practical applications for foot health, including designing robotics and prosthetics.
Snap. Crackle. Pop: There’s a reason we’re attracted to crispy fried chicken or the satisfying crunch of a potato chip. A ton of engineering (and science) is behind it, Bon Appetit uncovers in a reporting journey that culminates at the Culinary Innovation Center at Frito Lay HQ.
This week in the night sky
Beware the super worm moon: Because the moon's orbit is egg-shaped, there are times when it is at perigee—its shortest distance—or at apogee, its farthest distance. If the full moon phase happens to fall at the same time as perigee, then we get a perigee full moon, colloquially called a supermoon. On Tuesday, the moon will reach its full phase, and about 12 hours later, it will be at its closest to Earth for the month. The resulting supermoon will be about 13 percent brighter and bigger than average. And since March's full moon is traditionally known as the worm moon in the Northern Hemisphere, due to the abundance of earthworms seen in spring, the week will deliver a super worm moon. —Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Remembering Freeman Dyson: Without this theoretical physicist, the world may not have had certain cancer treatments, or the understanding for modern computers, phones, or digital cameras. "I'm not a person for big questions," Dyson told Quanta Magazine shortly after his 90th birthday. "I look for puzzles. I look for interesting problems that I can solve.“
Read: Legendary theoretical physicist dies at 96
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The last glimpse
Light show: Why did the eruption of an Indonesian volcano spark six days of thunderstorms? The storms around Anak Krakatau streaked the sky with lightning, as much as 72 flashes a minute, writes Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas. “It blew me away how much lightning was there,” says Andrew Pinta, lead author of a study on how volcanic eruptions affect local weather. Above: Lightning snakes through a volcanic plume, obscuring Anak Krakatau from sight during an eruption in January 2019.