NASA's Chandra Unmasks New Cosmic Threat to Planetary Life, Stellar Assassins

NASA's Chandra Unmasks New Cosmic Threat to Planetary Life, Stellar Assassins ...

A new analysis has investigated the possible impact X-rays could have on supernova explosions within a certain distance. This artist's illustration depicts a planet within a certain distance after it has been bombarded with X-rays, as well as a second panel that depicts the planet just as the supernova goes off. The area within the Milky Way galaxy where life would be beneficial as we know it would be smaller.

  • Astronomers have determined supernova explosions pose yet another threat to planets and their atmospheres.
  • This result comes from analysis of X-ray observations for over 30 supernovae using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes.
  • For some types of supernova the researchers found that a torrent of X-rays could be unleashed that last for decades.
  • This type of X-ray onslaught could significantly damage atmospheres of nearby planets, impacting life as we know it.
  • Earth is in a safe space in terms of potentially harmful supernova explosions, but may not have been in the past.

Astronomers using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes have identified a fresh threat to life on planets such as Earth: a period during which intense X-rays from exploded stars can affect planets over 100 light-years away. This finding has implications for the study of exoplanets and their habitability.

The supernova's blast wave is capable of destroying the exploded star, as shown in the upper right of our artist's impression, and it may last for decades. Such intense exposure may trigger an extinction event on the planet.

A new research that investigates this danger is based on X-ray observations of 31 supernovae and their aftermath — mostly from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Swift and NuSTAR missions, and ESA's XMM-Newton — that planets may be exposed to dangerous radiation doses as far away as 160 light years away.

NASA/CXC/M. Weiss credits for SN 1979C.

NASA/CXC/M. Weiss credit for SN 1987A.

NASA/CXC/M. Weiss, SN 2010jl.

NASA/CXC/M. Weiss/SN 1994I. Credit

Prior to this, most research on supernova explosions emphasized the danger from two periods: the intense radiation produced by a supernova in the days and months following the explosion, and the energetic particles that arrive hundreds to thousands of years later.

If a torrent of X-rays sweeps over a nearby planet, the radiation might disrupt the planet's atmospheric chemistry. For an Earth-like planet, this process might wipe out a significant portion of ozone, which ultimately protects life from the harmful ultraviolet radiation of its host star. It might also result in the demise of a wide variety of organisms, including marine ones at the core of the food chain.

A large amount of nitrogen dioxide may be produced, causing a brown cloud in the atmosphere, as shown in the illustration. Plant damage might also cause a "de-greening" of land masses.

Before and after radiation exposure, an Earth-like planet is shown in this illustration. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

A separate artist's impression (panel #1) depicts the same Earth-like planet as having been abundant with life at the time of the nearby supernova, years before the majority of the X-ray's effects are felt (panel #2).

SN 2010jl is the most X-ray emitter among the four supernovae in the set of pictures. It is said to have given Earth-like planets less than 100 light years away.

Supernovae occurred close to Earth between 2 million and 8 million years ago, according to researchers. They are between 65 and 500 light years away.

Although the Earth and the Solar System are currently in a safe zone in terms of potential supernova explosions, many other planets in the Milky Way are not. These high-energy events would effectively shrink the areas within the Milky Way galaxy known as the Galactic Habitable Zone, where life as we know it.

The authors recommend that you keep an eye on supernovae that are interacting for months or years after the explosion because they are scattered.

The Astrophysical Journal has made a reference to Ian R. Brunton, Brian D. Fields, Adrian L. Melott, and Brian C. Thomas, who appeared on 19 April 2023. DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/acc728

The paper describing this result will be published in the April 20, 2023 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Other authors include Ian Brunton, Connor O’Mahoney, and Brian Fields from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Adrian Melott from the University of Kansas, and Brian Thomas from Washburn University in Kansas.

The Chandra program is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center oversees science activities from Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

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