Serendipity: Galactic catastrophes

IN THE LATE Sixties, America launched the Vela satellites, designed to monitor the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by detecting gamma rays given off during nuclear blasts. The Americans could already monitor nuclear tests in the atmosphere and below ground, and now they were able to see if the Soviets were conducting clandestine nuclear tests in space. In 1967, a Vela satellite detected a blast of gamma radiation, and the American military immediately panicked.

Fortunately, it turned out that this was nothing to do with the Soviets, but rather was the result of a cosmic event. The Vela satellites have detected several other gamma ray bursts (GRBs), lasting from a fraction of a second to a few seconds. Over the last decade, astrophysicists have been able to pinpoint their location, and it is clear that the mysterious objects that cause GRBs are usually at the edge of the observable universe, and therefore the energy created must be enormous, because the radiation is still fantastically bright by the time it reaches us. GRBs are typically billions of times brighter than a supernova and they represent a power output equivalent to millions of galaxies.

Some suggest that GRBs are the result of a cataclysmic collision between two neutron stars, others hypothesise that we are observing the consequences of a neutron star falling into a black hole. While astrophysicists are both bemused and awe-struck by the most brilliant flashes in the cosmos, scientists searching for extraterrestrial intelligence view them as a possible reason why we have not yet been visited by aliens.

James Annis, a physicist at Chicago's Fermi National Laboratory, has recently pointed out that a GRB that occurs in a particular galaxy is likely to irradiate and kill all life within that galaxy. Furthermore, a galaxy is likely to have a GRB every few hundred million years, and so it seems that galaxies are sterilised at regular intervals. In a paper published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Annis suggests that GRBs might destroy civilisations before they have been around long enough to develop the technology required for galactic travel.

On the other hand, astronomer Paul Davies is a little less pesimistc. A gamma-ray burst might kill land-based creatures, but deep sea creatures would probably survive, shielded by the water above them. Furthermore, organisms on the far-side of the planet, the side facing away from the radiation, would also be safe, protected by the mass of the planet between them and the GRB. In reply, Annis points out that a GRB would destroy the ozone layer and therefore have a global impact. Either way, it is unlikely that there will be a GRB in our galaxy in the next 10 million years, and so there is probably nothing for us to worry about for the time being.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works