From extraterrestrial annihilation to asteroids, Hollywood disaster films have envisioned virtually every conceivable end of the world scenario.
However, while certain apocalyptic scenarios may appear somewhat implausible, there exists a far more malevolent menace emanating from outer space that is grounded in scientific principles.
A new study warns that this rare and enigmatic type of cosmic explosion has the potential to wipe out life on Earth for “thousands of years.”
The Lethal Impact of Kilonovas
While not as intense in intensity as a supernova, a kilonova is generated by the collision and merging of two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole. This event emits a brief burst of gamma rays that only lasts for a few seconds.
Haille Perkins, a scientist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told Space.com, “Our findings indicate that the resulting radiation could cause an extinction-level event if a neutron star merger were to transpire within approximately 36 light-years of Earth.”
It is important to note that the nearest neutron stars are almost 400 light-years from Earth, making such a detonation unlikely.
Scientists, however, assert that it could snuff out humanity due to the fact that the radiation emitted by gamma rays is sufficiently energetic to ionise atoms by stripping them of their electrons.
Upon reaching Earth, these particles have the potential to destroy the ozone layer and subject us to thousands of years of lethal ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
To achieve such gamma rays’ distance, the detonation would, nevertheless, have to occur within 36 light years of Earth.
Assessing the Risks
Perkins further stated, “Many of the effects depend on properties such as the viewing angle to the event, the energy of the blast, the mass of material ejected, and more, which render the precise distance of safety and most hazardous component uncertain.”
Based on the parameters that we choose, it appears that cosmic rays will pose the greatest danger.
Kilonovas are so intriguing due to the fact that they are both extremely rare and extremely fast, which makes their study challenging.
In fact, researchers from the University of Warwick announced this week that they had successfully analysed a kilonova using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
This enabled them to investigate the heavy elements generated by the explosion, including the verification that kilonovas do, in fact, produce tellurium, a hypothesis that had hitherto lacked empirical support.
In contrast, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently based its study on an alternative neutron star merger occurring at a distance of 130 million light-years. Gravitational waves have detected and analyzed this unique kilonova.
In addition to the potential hazard of atmosphere depletion, the experts discovered that gamma ray streams emanating from the merger of neutron stars possessed the capability of annihilating any object within a 297 light-year distance.
This, however, could only occur through a “direct hit” from a jet; therefore, the probability of this threat is even lower than that of the Earth’s atmosphere gradually deteriorating.