Gamma-ray bursts: Why ‘death star’ explosions can strip Earth of its atmosphere

Gamma-rays bursts are just one of the many threats lurking in the depths of space. From killer asteroid impacts to supernova eruptions, Earth is ill-equipped to protect humanity from these cosmic cataclysms.

Should a gamma-ray burst ever erupt in a nearby region of the Milky Way, the effects on Earth could be paralysing.

The GRB could disable Earth’s electronics and power grids or, worse yet, completely strip the planet of its nourishing atmosphere.

Dr Michał Michałowski from the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poland told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) astronomers have witnessed one such GRB, dating it back to 4.5 billion years ago.

The photons flying through space from the GRB were many millions of times brighter than any star visible from Earth.

Luckily, the blast was too far away to have any effect on our planet.


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Dr Michałowski said: “It would have been a problem. Such powerful radiation could have destroyed the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Communication systems and electronics would have certainly died.”

But the good news is the likelihood of a GRB appearing in Earth’s corner of space is minimal.

Dr Michałowski said: “There are no stars in our surrounding that could produce gamma-ray bursts when erupting.

“In this respect, we are most likely safe.”

What is a gamma-ray burst?

Gamma-ray bursts are short-lived but powerful flashes of light trigged by explosive stars.

Such powerful radiation could have destroyed the Earth’s atmosphere

Dr Michał Michałowski, University of Adam Mickiewicz

According to the US space agency NASA, GRBs are the most energetic form of light in the known universe.

Astronomers recognise two types of GRBs, both of which are believed to result in the birth of a black hole.

Long-duration GRBs are produced when a supermassive star goes supernova and, despite their name, only last between two seconds to a few hundred seconds.

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Short-duration GRBs last less than two seconds at a time and are associated with the merging of two neutron stars.

GRBs released by these cosmic events could change the planet’s atmosphere by forcing oxygen and nitrogen to bond.

The gamma flash could also destroy the planet’s ozone layer, allowing harmful UV radiation to wash over the planet.

Whatever the case may be, astronomers are certain there are no “death stars” close enough to Earth to threaten humanity.

Earlier this year, researchers have suggested the bright star Betelgeuse could be preparing to go supernova in the distant future.

But according to Professor Joanna Mikołajewska of the Nicholas Copernicus Astronomical Centre in Poland, the star would have to be 10 times closer to Earth to pose any threat.

Betelgeuse is estimated to sit more than 642 light-years from our planet.

Professor Mikołajewska said: “They would have to be 10 times closer to destroy a significant amount of the ozone layer in Earth’s atmosphere.”

The astronomer added there are some stars, such as Antares or Spica, that are close enough to our homeworld and could go supernova but they are not massive enough to threaten life on Earth.

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