Powerful 1-in-10,000-year space explosion shook Earth’s atmosphere last year

Record-breaking gamma-ray burst likely originated from massive star that collapsed into black hole

Vishwam Sankaran
Wednesday 15 November 2023 07:37 GMT

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A powerful 1-in-10,000-year radiation burst from space shook the Earth’s upper atmosphere last year, finds a new study.

The record-breaking bright and long-lasting gamma-ray burst (GRB) likely originated from a massive star that collapsed into a black hole. The burst is named GRB 221009A and more commonly called the Brightest Of All Time (Boat).

The burst that originated some 2.4 billion light-years away from Earth and struck the planet on 9 October last year may have led to changes in the upper ionosphere, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

Large variations in the electric field of the Earth’s upper ionosphere, around 500km above the planet’s surface, may have been caused by the powerful GRB, said researchers, including those from the University of L’Aquila in Italy.

Data from satellites and ground-based stations observing the ionosphere found a large variation of the electric field in the Earth’s upper ionosphere.

“A huge variation of the ionospheric electric field, induced by the strong ionospheric conductivity change was detected in the top side ionosphere (507 km),” scientists wrote in the study.

Researchers found both these changes correlated with GRB 221009A.

While the GRB struck for around seven minutes long, scientists said its effects were detectable for more than 10 hours following initial detection.

Previous studies suggested the stability of the ionosphere plays a key role in the endurance and evolution of life on the planet.

An abrupt increase in chemical changes in these sections of Earth, for instance, might deplete the planet’s protective ozone on a global scale, exposing more people and lifeforms to cancer-causing UV radiation.

A recent analysis of about 7,000 GRBs suggests Boat was 70 times brighter than any others yet seen. Such a rare powerful burst of radiation can occur once every 10,000 years.

While GRB impacts on the lower ionosphere of the Earth have been known to scientists, they said have not been observed before on the upper ionosphere.

In this context, the new study raises concerns that cosmic explosions could produce high-energy radiation bursts that disturb this layer and affect life on Earth.

GRBs may cause disturbances to Earth as their released energetic particles can interact abnormally with the ionosphere, said researchers.

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