Seriously Scary Stars – Supernovas

One of my favorite parts about writing for Star Letters is that I get to spend time researching one of the most beautiful places that humanity has ever had the privilege of seeing. The beauty of space, however, does not negate the fact that the universe is a dangerous place. It is filled with all sorts of gases and elements that can cause deadly explosions.

Supernovas are the biggest kind of explosions in our universe. Occurring at the end of a star’s life cycle, supernovas hurtle elements, debris, and cosmic rays across space, which can be used to form new stars, planets, or any other thing that exists in the universe. They are incredibly helpful to scientists who want to learn more about how the universe is formed but are also, according to a recent article from EarthSky, “destructive on a scale beyond human imagining.”

And, they might just become deadly at a distance greater than what scientist had previously thought.

A group of researchers, led by Adrian Melott from the University of Kansas, stated in a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysics Journal, that a previous group of researchers “estimated the ‘kill zone’ for a supernova in a paper in 2003, and they came up with about 25 light years from Earth.” However, Melott’s research team now believes that a supernova could become deadly at 50 light-years away.

This conclusion has come from previous research done on a supernova that is estimated to have taken place 2.6 million years ago. From the data gathered, researchers believe that a series of supernovas dramatically cooled the Earth down, leading to the most recent ice ages and may have “contributed to changes in atmosphere and habitats in Africa…” The supernova was believed to have taken place 150-light years away from Earth. This explosion was close enough to Earth to impact the planet would be the equivalent of receiving a few CT scans a year – not lethal but enough to “increase the incidence of cancer in animals.” Cosmic rays may also have increased the ionization of the atmosphere, leading to more lightning, wildfires and the potential destruction of forests in Africa.

Using these numbers from that research, scientists have been able to estimate at what distance a supernova could cause mass extinction here on Earth. Melott, in a statement about the paper, said, “we don’t know precisely, and of course, it wouldn’t be a hard cut off distance. But we think something more like 40 or 50 light years.” Despite this scary news people have no reason to become alarmed. Our sun, which is only eight light-minutes away from our planet, does not have enough mass to become a supernova. The closest star that might go off, Betelgeuse, is 600 light-years away. It appears as though we are safe from harm…for now.

Written by Staff Writer Becca Brunner            

Becca is a recent college graduate who lives in Tampa, Florida. From a young age, she has been fascinated by the stars and how beautiful the universe is. When she’s not writing for our blog, she can be found reading the latest YA novel, catching up on Dr. Who, or just hanging out with friends in coffee shops.


Photo Credit: NASA


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