When you think about space in movies, you probably instantly picture the Star Wars universe — or Star Trek, if you're not so into lightsabers. Hollywood's starry universe is all about crazy spaceships that fulfill our wildest childhood dreams, mysterious planets that range from the gorgeously lush to the dangerous, and a fascination with alien forms of life. Even if all it wants to do is viciously kills us, we want to know what's out there.
But what about depictions of actual space? There's no need to travel to a galaxy far, far away to find plenty of astral elements befitting an epic space adventure. Beyond the Sun and the Moon, there's one star that's caught the eye of fiction writers: Betelgeuse, whose name alone is worth a movie character (after all, didn't they introduce a living planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?).
It's 'Betelgeuse,' Not 'Beetlejuice'
Betelgeuse is a star of the red supergiant category, which means it's pretty old as far as star lives go. Most importantly, it's one of the 10 brightest stars in our night sky, but it would outshine all stars except the sun if our eyes could view the full spectrum of radiation wavelengths. You might have spotted it when star-gazing: It's distinguishable by of its reddish orange color, and constitutes the left shoulder of the Orion constellation.
Its name, reportedly coming from the Arabic إبط الجوزاء Ibṭ al-Jauzā, which roughly stands for "the axilla of Orion," was the inspiration behind the title of Tim Burton's 1988 film Beetlejuice. Written by Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren and Larry Wilson, the film doesn't really have anything to do with the star itself, but it's a beautiful reference to this unusually complex name for a star. It's so much better than Generic Star Name 22B, isn't it?
Before Beetlejuice, Betelgeuse almost got another chance at getting featured on the big screen with Planet of the Apes, the man versus ape epic that was based on Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel. In the original, Boulle sends the humans on an expedition toward Betelgeuse; once they arrive at the end of their journey, they land on Soror, where they are captured by apes. The film adaptation of 1968 unfortunately left out the name of the star the crew were headed for, but their destination is still a planet in the constellation of Orion.
If You Hitchhike The Galaxy, Make Sure To Stop By Betelgeuse
Another famous mention of Betelgeuse appears in Douglas Adams's sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was adapted in 2005 with Martin Freeman in the starring role. Ford Prefect, the eccentric character who picks up Arthur Dent from Earth and was played by Mos Def in the film adaptation, comes from "a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse."
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It's like we only know of two solar systems in the universe, and living around Betelgeuse is the new heliocentrism. The star even gets nods in other pillars of intergalactic sci-fi culture, with the mention of Bela Tegeuse in Dune, where the Zensunni stop on their migration, and an ode to Orion in Roy Batty's iconic monologue in Blade Runner:
"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."
What If Betelgeuse Explodes?
That's already quite a lot of references for a single star in our galaxy, but the future of Betelgeuse has the potential to inspire many more writers of fiction. That's because one of the later stages in life of a red supergiant star is turning into a supernova — essentially, exploding. The best known occurrences of supernovae in our galaxy have taken place in 1006, 1054, 1572 and 1604, but each of these stars was located much further away.
When Betelgeuse does collapse on itself, it could appear to us brighter than the Moon. Its size means it has the potential to be brighter than anything else in our night sky for as long as a year — the kind of presence that should definitely award it even more fictional recognition. Unfortunately, it's 600 light years away from us, which means that its light takes 600 years to reach us. The result of that is that there's no way of knowing if it's already exploded 300 years ago, or if we're going to have to wait another few thousands years to see it light up the sky. Maybe we'll be able to hitchhike a ride to get closer by then.
Had you heard about Betelgeuse before? Which part of space, real or fictional, would you travel to?