New Type of Supernova Could Eat Up a Planet’s Atmosphere
There are those who will tell you that we need to colonize Mars and as many other places as we can, because the Earth is coming down the tube. As we plunge headlong into a future increasingly defined by anthropogenic climate change (or some other catastrophic disaster that makes Earth uninhabitable), there’s something appealing about packing up and starting over somewhere else. That’s the premise behind SYFY’s upcoming deep space sci-fi series, The ark (debuting on February 1).
The truth is that we evolved specifically to live in this world. Unless we’re incredibly lucky, anywhere else we land will be far worse than even a “ruined” Earth. We would almost certainly have to engineer the atmosphere at least a bit to be able to breathe easy. Then there’s the job of establishing Earth plants and animals in an alien biosphere, not to mention building the entire infrastructure from scratch. In almost all cases, it would be easier to use those same skills to clean up the mess we did at home.
There are some situations, however, in which the only safe course of action is to abandon ship, even if it means plunging, ill-prepared, into the near-infinite darkness of the universe. Humanity has become quite adept at destruction, but our abilities pale in comparison to what the universe has up its sleeve. For a long time, asteroids or other impactors were the cosmic apocalypse of choice, but some of our anxieties about a sucking hit from a space rock are starting to ease with improved detection methods and the DART mission success. But asteroids are just the preamble to the universe itself. kamehameha: the supernova.
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Supernovae are among the most violent events in the universe, carrying truly staggering amounts of energy in their wake. With any luck, you might get to witness the power of a supernova from a safe distance, sometime in the near future. If you look up at the night sky and find the constellation Orion, you may find a wannabe supernova. The star that forms the right hand of Orion (his right, your left) is Betelgeuse, and it is it will explode at any moment. Of course, any minute now on cosmic time scales could mean any time between right now and 100,000 years from now. So don’t hold your breath.
When it explodes, it will go supernova and be the brightest object in the sky except the Sun. You will be able to see it during the day and at night it will outshine the Moon for weeks after the explosion. Along with all that light, the star will release mind-boggling amounts of radiation and highly accelerated particles, and it’s those aftereffects that can prove deadly to any planet within the blast radius. What’s worse, radiation and cosmic rays can strike at different times, acting as a double whammy for an unsuspecting ecosystem.
There is evidence that the Earth has been hit by a supernova at least once in the past, and hit us in the butt. The Devonian extinction, about 360 million years ago, shows signs that some organisms were exposed to high levels of ultraviolet radiation, something that would happen if the ozone layer were depleted. A supernova about 65 light-years away is believed to have hit Earth and damaged its shields a bit. It led to the deaths of about 70% of all invertebrate species alive at the time, but it could have been much worse. The researchers estimate that if the supernova had been 25 light-years away or closer, it could have completely destroyed life on Earth. Fortunately for us, there are no known supernova candidates within that range, but a recent study published to the arXiv preprint server describes a new type of supernova that extends its attack range from 25 to 150 light years.
When stars are about to go supernovae, some of them gather a disk of material around them, almost as if they are gathering their loved ones for a last goodbye. When they explode, the shock wave erupts from the star and hits the disk of accreted material, heating it up. That heat comes out the other side of the disk in the form of X-ray radiation, which can spread out about six times longer than the radiation from most typical supernovae.
All that radiation would react with oxygen in our atmosphere and remove the ozone layer. Scientists estimate that up to 50% of the ozone layer could disappear in a short period of time, and all of us would be plunged into a bath of fatal radiation. Game over. Once again, by a stroke of cosmic luck, the Earth evades the executioner. We’re not aware of any X-ray supernovae within 150 light-years of us, but that doesn’t mean we’re going off without a hitch. It is possible that these supernovae contribute to the scarcity of life in the galaxy.
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“X-ray bright SNe could pose a substantial and distinct threat to terrestrial biospheres and narrow the galactic habitable zone,” the authors said.
That’s because anywhere within 150 light-years of these supernovae could be doomed to become a dead zone. If you’re an ecosystem settling on a planet near one of these stars, you may be destined to be hit with its death rattle. You will be treated to one of the most incredible light shows the universe has to offer, shortly before being struck by a barrage of X-ray radiation. The planet’s ozone layer would be destroyed and any species not living underground or under water would be at risk of extinction. Then, a few thousand years later, while you’re still licking your wounds, cosmic rays from the same supernova appear and knock you down again.
Maybe it’s not so bad living here in the galactic suburbs, away from all the excitement and destruction of other stars.
For more radiation adventures, check out Ang Lee’s Hulk, streaming now on Peacock!
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