Kilonova? More like killer-nova.
Violent star collisions, called a kilonova, could devastate our planet due to a lethal spew of radiation — namely gamma rays, cosmic rays and x-rays — that are emitted from the celestial event, scientists have discovered.
“We found that if a neutron star merger were to occur within around 36 light-years of Earth, the resulting radiation could cause an extinction-level event,” University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researcher Haille Perkins told Space.com.
The powerful collision of ultra-dense neutron stars — a teaspoon of which would weigh approximately one billion tons — creates a particle blast that would decimate our planet’s ozone layer and make it vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation for the next 1,000 years: an extinction-level event.
“The specific distance of safety and component that is most dangerous is uncertain as many of the effects depend on properties like viewing angle to the event, the energy of the blast, the mass of material ejected, and more,” Perkins reassured.
Of all the lethal particles tested, researchers determined that cosmic rays pose the most viable concern. The interstellar smash would precipitate an expanding bubble of cosmic rays that would envelop all in its path, and rain highly energetic charged particles on Earth.
Equally as frightening are the gamma rays. These emit as two narrow jets from either side of the merger that would, in theory, torch any celestial planet or object in its direct path for an estimated 297 lightyears. Yet even an indirect pass of gamma radiation could be enough to significantly dissolve our ozone and require about four years to repair.
Even worse, gamma ray collisions with surrounding star dust — or, “interstellar medium” — can result in X-ray emissions that have the same ionizing effect on our planet’s ozone layer, according to Perkins’ team.
Because those effects last longer than that of gamma rays, it could be more lethal, according to Space.com — although, the Earth would need to be close, about 16 light years away, to feel it.
Perkins’ team studied a neutron star merger that occurred in 2017, about 130 million lightyears away, which resulted in a violent spew of particles that were about 1,300 times the mass of Earth, according to past reports.
At the time, researchers believed the kilonova could give clues as to how certain heavy elements — like platinum, uranium and gold — came to fruition.
But Perkins also assured panic is not necessary — kilonovas are “rare.”
“There are several other more common events like solar flares, asteroid impacts, and supernova explosions that have a better chance of being harmful,” Perkins said.
In another study published last month, a team of scientists observed the aftermath of a suspected kilonova that occurred in March, marking the first-time researchers have used the James Webb Space Telescope to study such events, lead author Andrew Levan told CNN.