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SYFY WIRE Supernova

New type of supernova could eat a planet's atmosphere from 150 light years away

But... we're using that.

By Cassidy Ward
The Ark spacecraft

There are those who will tell you that we need to colonize Mars and as many other places as we can, because Earth is on its way down the tube. As we plunge headlong into a future increasingly defined by anthropogenic climate change (or some other catastrophic disaster which renders Earth uninhabitable) there’s something appealing about the idea of packing up and starting over someplace else. That’s the premise behind SYFY’s own upcoming deep space science fiction series, The Ark (debuting Feb. 1).

The truth is, we evolved specifically to live on this world. Unless we are incredibly lucky, anywhere else we land will be much worse than even a “ruined” Earth. We would almost surely have to engineer the atmosphere at least a little to be able to breathe easily. Then there’s the work of establishing plants and animals from Earth in an alien biosphere, not to mention building all of the infrastructure from scratch. In almost every case it would be easier to use those same skills to clean up the mess we made at home.

There are some situations, however, in which the only safe course of action is to jump ship, even if that means plunging yourself, ill-prepared, into the universe’s nearly endless darkness. Humanity has become pretty skilled 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 sucker punch from a space rock are beginning to alleviate with improved detection methods and the success of the DART mission. But asteroids are only the preamble to the universe’s own Kamehameha: the supernova.

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Supernovae are among the most violent events in the universe and carry truly staggering amounts of energy in their wake. With a little 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 of Orion, you can find an aspiring supernova. The star that makes up Orion’s right hand (his right, your left) is Betelgeuse, and it’s going to blow any minute now. Of course, any minute now on cosmic timescales could mean anytime between right now and 100,000 years from now. So, don’t hold your breath.

When it explodes, it will become a supernova and will be the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun. You’ll 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-bending amounts of radiation and highly accelerated particles, and it’s those after effects which can prove deadly for any planet within the blast radius. What’s worse, radiation and cosmic rays can hit at different times, acting as a one-two punch for an unsuspecting ecosystem.

Supernova and Exoplanet

There’s evidence that Earth has been hit by a supernova at least once in its past, and it knocked us on our butts. The Devonian extinction, roughly 360 million years ago, shows signs that some organisms were exposed to high levels of UV radiation, something which would happen if the ozone layer were diminished. It’s believed that a supernova about 65 light years away hit the Earth and damaged its shields a little. It led to the deaths of about 70% of all invertebrate species alive at the time, but it could have been so much worse. Researchers estimate that had the supernova been 25 light years away or closer, it could have totally wrecked life on Earth. Luckily for us, there aren’t any known supernova candidates within that range, but a recent study published to the preprint server arXiv describes a new type of supernova which extends its attack range from 25 light years to 150.

When stars are about to go supernova, some of them gather a disk of material around them, almost as if they’re gathering their loved ones for one last goodbye. When they explode, the shockwave bursts from the star and slams into the accreted disk of material, heating it up. That heat comes out the other side of the disk in the form of X-ray radiation, which can stretch roughly six times farther than the radiation from more typical supernovae.

All of that radiation would react with the oxygen in our atmosphere and strip away the ozone layer. Scientists estimate that as much as 50% of the ozone layer could vanish over a short period of time, and all of us would be bathed in a fatal radiation bath. Game over. Once again, through a stroke of cosmic luck, Earth evades the executioner. We aren’t aware of any X-ray supernovae within 150 light years of us, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting off without a scrape. It’s 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 tighten the Galactic habitable zone,” the authors said.

That’s because everywhere within 150 light years of these supernovae might be a doomed to become a dead zone. If you’re an ecosystem setting up shop on a planet near one of these stars, you might be destined to get hit by its death rattle. You’d be treated to one of the most incredible lightshows the universe has to offer, shortly before being hit by a barrage of X-ray radiation. The planet’s ozone layer would be wrecked and any species not living underground or underwater would be at risk of extinction. Then, a few thousand years later while you’re still licking your wounds, the cosmic rays from the same supernova show up and knock you down again.

Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing living way out here in the galactic suburbs, away from all the excitement and destruction of other stars.

For more adventures with radiation, check out Ang Lee’s Hulk, streaming now on Peacock!