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March 17, 2009

Eve of Destruction: Gamma Ray Bursts

SN2006X-060214_small On February 18, 2006, Swift, a NASA telescope, detected what was later designated as Supernova 2006X. I'll let Gregg Easterbrook continue with the story:

Coded GRB 060218, this star detonation began as a gamma-ray burst that lasted 33 minutes -- absolutely stunning because previous gamma-ray bursts from space have lasted a few seconds at the most. The gamma rays came from 470 million light-years away. That was discomfiting because strong gamma-ray bursts usually emanate from what astronomers call the "deep field," billions of light-years distant and thus billions of years back in the past. A distance of 470 million light-years means the GRB 060218 supernova happened 470 million years ago. That is ancient by human reckoning, but many cosmologists had been assuming the kind of extremely massive detonations thought to cause strong gamma-ray busts occurred only in the misty eons immediately after the Big Bang. The working assumption was that since life appeared on Earth, there had been no stellar mega-explosion. Now we know there has.

For several days as the giant dying star GRB 060218 collapsed, this single supernova shined brighter than all 100 billion other suns in its galaxy combined. The detonation was so inexpressibly luminous that, though 470 million light-years distant, it could be seen by telescopes on Earth. And not just fancy telescopes at the tops of mountains: A few days after the Swift satellite detected the gamma-ray surge, an amateur astronomer in the Netherlands sighted the forming supernova through a backyard telescope. The stellar coordinates hit the Web -- it was at RA: 03:21:39.71 Dec: +16:52:02.6 -- and soon amateur astronomers the world over were marveling at the glistening beacon from the cosmic past. This explosion released so much energy that it happened 470 million years ago yet the light could travel for that protracted period, plus pass through the gas and dust of roughly a hundred galaxies along the way, and still illuminate mirrors of backyard telescopes on Earth.

If you're thinking "so what?" then here's the bottom line: "had GRB 060218 happened in our galaxy, life on Earth would have ended Feb. 18 [2006]." 

To understand why, check out the gamma ray burst entry at Wikipedia and the NASA Swift link above. Go ahead. I'll wait . . . .

Back? Good. Now understand that unlike, say, an asteroid or a comet, we wouldn't know what hit us until it had already hit us.The first hint we would have is the sudden appearance of a second sun in the sky and then the dying would commence. Even people indoors would develop what looked like severe sunburns from radiation exposure. Then things would get really bad: the gamma ray burst would rip off most of the Ozone Layer, leaving us totally exposed to the same cosmic radiation that left Mars a lifeless shell.

As Easterbrook noted, scientists used to console themselves (and us) with the thought that gamma ray bursts only happened a really long time ago in galaxies unimaginably far, far away.

Now, they're not so sure.The good news is that, by one estimate, an explosion has to occur within 3,000 light years of Earth to cause the Apocalypse. That rules out all but a "small portion" of our galaxy.

The bad news? There's evidence of at least two possible such bursts in the past 340,000 years: Geminga, which was only 180 light years away, and Vela, approximately 800 light years away. While the extent of the damage, if any, caused by these explosions is hotly debated, we can no longer rule out the possibility.

Thus gamma ray bursts rate a 10/10 on the "destruction" component on the "Eve of Destruction" scale. Its "eve" score, however, is low: .0001/10. It would probably score even lower except for the whole "out of nowhere" thingie.

Next on "Eve of Destruction": Asteroids, Meteors and Comets, Oh My!

(Image © Associazione Astronomica Cortina)

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But wait, Roberto, God created the whole universe just 6,000 years ago. How could a star whose destructive power would destroy all of human life from less than three hundred thousand lightyears away blow up and not kill us all? I mean, the farthest away it could be is 6,000 lightyears, right? O dear, my brain is all in a tizzy.

Gina Dalfonzo

Did you just mistake Roberto for a Young Earther?



(No offense to the Young Earthers here -- "someone" is just barking up the wrong tree, that's all.)

Benjamin Ady

I totally love this "Eve of destruction" series. Thank you for posting them. It's kind of fun, and matches well with my personality, which is a bit puddleglummish.


R2 quoted: "had GRB 060218 happened in our galaxy, life on Earth would have ended Feb. 18 [2006]."

Talk about pointlessness - the very first blog entry here came 7 months after that, *to the day*. GRB vs. GRD - an easy choice! :-)

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