back to article Boffins fear killer gamma death blasts from space

Boffins have discovered that short hard bursts of radiation in space caused by colliding stars could be as dangerous to the world's atmosphere as longer, high-energy ones. Studies have already shown that long bursts of gamma radiation from space, such as those caused by supernovae and extreme solar flares, can punch holes in …


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  1. Eponymous Cowherd

    At least.....

    We'd all die laughing......

  2. Sir Runcible Spoon


    "and if such an event happened inside the Milky Way, the results could be devastating"

    It's already happened, the memo just hasn't arrived yet that's all.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Did you ask a neutrino?

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon


        I did, but he/she/it couldn't really make up it's mind.

  3. Silverburn

    Ozone layer

    ...maybe if we hadn't totally hosed our ozone layer, maybe this would be less of an issue than it is.

    Only consolation is that in this event it'll be the annoyingly cute (but bloody rank) penguins who get roasted first.

    1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      You're kidding, right?

      Our ozone layer isn't "totally hosed", it's still almost entirely there and it is constantly replenished by higher frequency electromagnetic radiation interacting with O2. But never mind that, you're apparently claiming that an "intact" ozone layer would prevent a gamma ray burst from doing anything to us?


      We aren't talking a dribble of light here, we're talking the entire output of the sun hitting us in moments. The ozone layer wouldn't stop a tiny fraction of that. In fact it'd probably be blown away in the first second.

      Just for once, look past the sort of petty vindictiveness that tries to blame humans for everything and realise that the universe is far bigger and more powerful than we could ever hope to comprehend.

  4. kiwi8mail

    Galactic reboot

    Both Stephen Baxter and Arthur C Clarke have speculated that Gamma-ray bursts are the reason there are no widespread galactic civilisations.

    So, global warming, world economic collapse, and now Gamma-ray bursts to worry about…

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Wasn't Greg Egan there first in

    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      "...are the reason there are no widespread galactic civilisations."

      And there was me thinking that it was the reason that their skin turned grey and all their hair fell out...

  5. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    I thought that someone had already gone looking for and found evidence of this. (Possibly in ice-cores) I think that they looked at the different isotopes of / concentrations of nitrogen that may have resulted from the rain?


    As for the current state of the ozone layer; from what I read, that deosn't matter. The GRB just kills all of it; doesn't matter how much you started with, you end up with none. I'm also not sure why you think that penguins are more susceptable to UV than anything else.

    1. Phil Endecott

      Half of planet might be OK

      > As for the current state of the ozone layer; from what I read, that

      > deosn't matter. The GRB just kills all of it; doesn't matter how much

      > you started with, you end up with none.

      Presumably the side of the earth that is facing away from the burst is OK initially.

      The question is how long does it take for the atmospheric mixing to spread the ozone and/or nitrous oxide around.

      (A bit like the plot of On The Beach, really.)

      1. SImon Hobson Bronze badge

        >> Presumably the side of the earth that is facing away from the burst is OK initially.

        But only for up to 12 hours ? I'd hazard a guess that these vents, while only being a 'blink' in cosmological timescales, could actually be of considerable length. We're talking some very massive bodies, that even at massive speed could take days, weeks ?, more ?, to finish their collisions.

        So if the burst lasts more than a few hours, the earth will simply rotate in it, much like the meat pillar in a kebab shop, and we'll all get a nice uniform roasting.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          No, the short bursts are actually just that, really quite short. Like a second or two.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        @Phil endecott

        "(A bit like the plot of On The Beach, really.)"

        IIRC that does not end well for the human race.

    2. Silverburn

      Well, they currently have *no* ozone, so are therefore immediately more susceptable to UV than 'us', GRB or not. Lucky for them, they have near total coverage of 'SPF 1000' feathers (even though sun cream won't necessarily protect against this UV).

      Not all GRB's are planet/ozone killers; most are currently dealt with by the ozone layer (if you have some...sorry penguins, that's not you). Even when a 'big one' occurs, it's once every 100m years anyway.

      To get a planet-frying dose, you'd need to be on the receiving end of something like a pulsar's polar emission from within a few hunded light years of here. Even the Crab Nebula hasn't fried us all yet.

      1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

        "Well, they currently have *no* ozone, "

        Wrong. They have a reduced percentage. The ozone "hole" is not a hole as you seem to believe, it's a thinning, like the hair on my head, or the credibility of your posts each time you make a new one. Still there, not as much as before, and it's highly variable as well.

        1. Dagg Silver badge

          it's a thinning, like the hair on my head

          Just like my hair as well and I can assure you that it now means I get very badly sun burnt on the top of my head!

          1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

            I don't get sunburned any more!

            Perhaps we should invent a giant hat for the earth. :)

  6. Anonymous Coward 101

    I can remember reading about this...

    ...a few years ago, or seeing it on the telly. Was it Horizon or something? Anyway, the people creating the theory did explicitly link it to the deaths of the dinosaurs and all that.

    Wouldn't it be cool (if terrifying) to live when humanity is being destroyed Sci-Fi style?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    AGD - the next human disaster

    Thats right, Anthropomorphic Gamma Death is upon us. The world must act NOW! burn all baby seals to release antiGamma goodness into the atmosphere before its too late! Buy my new AntiGamma lightbulbs too - eurpoean legislation coming soon... (no i'm not profiteering, i'm saving the planet!!)

    1. Steven Roper
      Thumb Up

      Dont forget

      the Gamma Ray Tax and GRB Credits that our governments need to bring in, in order to fund efforts to Do Something(tm) about this looming anthropogenic disaster!

    2. nyelvmark

      I've got to laugh...

      at people who are so stupid that they worry about such things.

      Not me - I bought an insurance policy which is guaranteed to pay out in the case of planetary destruction.

  8. jubtastic1

    Wouldn't it miss the ozone on the back of the planet?

    And wouldn't the remaining ozone dissipate around the globe providing considerably less protection but more than none?

    Finally, is there anything we could do to prevent or reverse the effects and if not what's the point in worrying about it?

  9. Munchausen By Taxi

    Y'know, back in the day when the Sun was closer to the Scorpio-Centaurus association...

    I seem to remember reading somewhere, that a nearish low level extinction event may have occurred as recently as 2 million years ago with the loss of some species of UV sensitive sea creatures and tell tale signs of heavy iron isotopes in sea sediments from that time.

  10. Joe7pak

    No Washburn University in Colorado

    As one of the several hundred residents of Colorado, I can tell you we were all surprised that Washburn U. had moved here from the beautiful confines of Topeka, Kansas. I'm sure the several hundred residents of Kansas were also surprised.

  11. Mike 140


    " holes careening into each other"

    Beached black holes having their barnacles removed?

  12. Brian 3

    Not nitrous oxide, nitric oxide!

    It wouldn't make nitrous oxide(N2O), it would make nitric oxide (NO2) which is a deadly red gas which when mixed with water forms nitric acid (HNO3).

  13. Colin Millar

    One ancient myth down

    Duration not important

    One to go

    Size doesn't matter

  14. Jimbo 6

    On a serious note...

    ...let's use a small percentage of the world's GDP to build some spaceships, and GET THE FLICK OUTTA HERE !!!!

    (No point in all of us going obviously, as wherever we run to is just as likely to get zapped at some point... we'll put the Human Resources and Accountancy departments on the First Ark)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I trust we have learnt

      And won't be sending the Telephone Sanitizers

      1. Richard 81

        If memory serves...

        Ditching the telephone sanitisers resulted in the death of the rest of the species due to infection caught from dirty telephones.

  15. Hardcastle the ancient


    So they've convinced me. What do we DO about it? Ark ships won't work, unless they have FTL drives. So we need some sort of shield? Made of what?

    1. Nigel 11


      You don't need a shield against the radiation, which wouldn't be at a lethal level, and in any case nearly half the planet's surface would be screened against the gamma radiation by thousands of miles of rock. You do need a shield against the subsequent global ecological collapse caused by (a) the destruction of the ozone layer and (b) the conversion of a significant amount of the Earth's atmosphere into NO2 and the subsequent nitric acid rain.

      A working (ha!) sealed biosphere II with acid-resistant exterior and UV-blocking windows would suffice, provided it was on the right side of the planet when the big flash happened.

      1. Daniel B.

        This sounds familiar

        ... isn't it the plot of "Inconstant Moon"? Half the planet gets fried, the other half suffers major cataclysms resulting from the frying of the other side. In the end, people in the "dark" half survive, though in small numbers, including the scientist that discovered it. Though the event in that one was a solar flare, not gamma radiation bursts.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      1) Detect nearby Neutron Star binaries or other Nosy Neighbors about to merge using LIGO observatories set up across the solar system.

      2) Determine exactly when this is gonna happen. This should be possible, as the gravitational radiation should allow you to make the appropriate interference.

      3) Make sure that slight, well engineered gravitational perturbations using massive asteroids or made-to-order compressed matter will make it so that Jupiter is between Earth and the upcoming Snap, Crackle and Pop Event at the appropriate moment. Hopefully, there won't be "triangulation" by more than 1 source at the same time and you will have time enough to engineer all of this.

      4) ???

      5) Biosphere unharmed!

      Granted, this is slightly more than the current Magical Multiracial One in the White House can chew. Challenge, USA?

    3. nyelvmark

      So we need some sort of shield? Made of what?

      I reckon quantum steel would do it. It has the same strength and density as steel, but is much easier to handle, because it only has mass if you actually try to weigh it.

    4. ~mico

      Of baby seals, naturally.

      On the serious side, it won't kill all life overnight - even a serious, close-by, long-ish GRB lasting even minutes or, $deity forbid, hours, will only sterilize half a planet - the half it's going to strike. Water will save most of the deep water creatures and buildings will save most of the urban dwelling people.

      So, we might end up with no ozone and some sterilized areas on exposed part of the planet - we will have to use technological means to re-seed plankton, forests and grasses, and to rebuild the ozone layer - it will take years, maybe decades, and we may loose a few species (lots of them if it hits Africa) - but it'd take much more than that to really wipe humanity out.

      The real problem is possible EMP shockwave due to ionized air recombination. That'll kick out the power grid and sensitive equipment. A serious catastrophe, but not a planet killer event. Asteroids are much more common and much deadlier.

    5. Richard 81

      A few pints and a packet of peanuts

      "What do we DO about it?"

      Nothing. Nothing at all. Even trying would be futile.

      If it happens tomorrow, just try to relax and be thankful that your life has been good to you so far. If it hasn't been good to you so far, don't worry. It won't be bothering you much longer.

    6. Steven Roper

      Why FTL?

      You don't need to have FTL to get an Ark type ship into space, just the ability to create and maintain a self-sustaining ecosystem. We could build huge "generational" ships, perhaps like long cylinders rotating on their axes to produce artificial gravity, on which people live out their lives and pass the baton to their children over the thousands of years it takes to get anywhere. Arthur C. Clarke described such ships in his novel "Songs of Distant Earth", a brilliant story about how people in these ships and their colony worlds remember Earth only as a distant legend from thousands of years in their past.

      You could also have "seed" ships, such as those described in Brian Aldiss' "Helliconia" trilogy or James Blish's Pantropy stories, in which ships crewed by robots and carrying modified human DNA adapted for life on new worlds travel outward, automatically raising new people from the seed DNA once the ship nears its destination.

      Finally, there is the NLS (Near-Light-Speed) ship, such as the Ship of the Law in Greg Bear's "Forge of God / Anvil of Stars" diptych, which accelerates to speeds approaching light, causing time dilation for the crew. Thus, a journey that in Earth time takes hundreds of years, passes in a few short years for those on board the ship.

      I actually worked out that if you accelerated at 1 G (0-100 km/h in 2.8 s) continuously, you'd approach light-speed after just over 11 months. So for a trip of any distance, a journey on such a ship would, to its crew, appear to take around 2 years - 1 year to get up to NLS, a few seconds to cross whatever distance (by time dilation - at 0.999999 c, centuries would pass in seconds for the crew), and a year to decelerate.

      The downsides of this last method are a) the consequences of hitting a grain of space dust at such speeds - an explosion in the megaton range comes to mind there - and b) the stupendous amount of energy required to sustain such acceleration; for a ship the size of the ISS, the entire output of the Sun for a few weeks might do the trick.

      But both of the first two methods are realistically within our reach, likely within the next century or so, and no FTL needed.

      1. Jaap stoel

        Plus the amount of energy you need in order to accellerate to such speeds. You'd need loads and loads of ReMass and as you get closer to C the amount of energy to accellerate increases exponentionally.

        Not to mention that you'll have to carry twice the amount of mass because you need to slow down as well.

      2. kwikbreaks


        I'm guessing the FTL stipulation was to allow the lifeboat starship to outrun the GRB and avoid fried nads so the eventual target planet could be repopulated. Possibly the GRB would be powerful enough to ensure only one (or less) generations on your ark.

  16. David Lester


    I'm looking through an old book of mine ("Approaches to numerical Relativity" Ray d'Inverno, CUP 1992), and numeric simulations of colliding neutron stars appear to occur over very short periods: ie the final approach from 20km to merger takes about 2ms.

    Does anyone have any more recent estimates? There's also an assumption that the pulsars are not shredded at 20km, which would have been a necessary simplification 20 years ago, but may be considered unrealistic nowadays. Anyone?

  17. Graham Marsden



  18. samwisethecat

    A short burst of Gamma Radiation?


  19. Jerry


    Careening is a technical term related to the scraping of ships hulls by turning them on their side.

    Your journalist may have intended 'careering' but even that is not really adequate.

    How about you employ some literate journalists who can describe the events technically and dispassionately?

    1. Graham Marsden


      How about you try looking a word up in a dictionary before you start slagging off others?

      For instance, from the Free Online Dictionary "1. To lurch or swerve while in motion" and I think there would be plenty of lurching and swerving when two black holes came close together...

  20. The Mole

    Anybody know what they mean by short and long bursts - astrophysicists often have strange definitions of these things (afterall 1000 years is short in terms galactic lifetimes)

  21. D. M

    Can't we start building Enterprise

    It seems to have enough supply to last a long long time.

  22. BasevaInc

    So why am i not Green ???

  23. davcefai

    A Couple more points

    1. Bouquets or Brickbats (can't decide which) to the author for avoiding "global warming" and "climate change" in the article.

    2. If we send out spaceships, which direction should they go? Frying pan -> fire anybody?

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