Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) are celestial events that are overwhelmingly intense. As a star dies a couple things could happen. Two scenarios are Supernovas and GRBs. During these dying processes, the inner core of the star collapses into a black hole and the outer core of the star explodes. Occasionally the forces work in such a way that two beams of terrifying power fire out of the ex-sun. These are Gamma Ray Bursts.
What is ‘terrifying power’?
Well, for one, GRB’s are visible across the universe. That in itself is pretty intense, but the power of a GRB is absurd. If one hit us squarely, and we were close enough to it, it would tear our atmosphere to bits, boil all our oceans, and impose one million times the lethal dose of x-rays and gamma rays upon us.
Thankfully for us, there are two characteristics of Gamma Ray Bursts that make them dramatically less dangerous.
Firstly, the beams are narrow. Very Narrow. only .4 degrees. As soon as you escape the hallway of fire, you’re safe.
Secondly, they have to be close to hurt us: no further than 1000 light years away.
Well, on March 18th, 2008 we witnessed one. We were staring right down the throat of a GRB. Thankfully, it was 8000 light years away so we didn’t fry. But it’s scary that we were hit at all. The likelihood of that is just so slim. So what happened on the 18th of March? Some of our big satellites quickly noticed the event and told all the other satellites to check it out. That they did and we got all sorts of information about Gamma Ray Bursts. It was visible to the naked eye and stands as the single most luminous event ever witnessed by humankind.
To be wittnessed so far away GRB’s must released a lot of energy. According to Bad Astronomy* a GRB releases “as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun will over its entire 10 billion year lifetime.”
So do we have anything to worry about? Not really… Although there is one star, WR 104, that is within the 1000 light-year radius. It appears to be of the right age to go supernova, but even if it did… not ever star that explodes emits a Gamma Ray Burst. Also, we’d have to be aligned with the star in order for their to be a problem. Unfortunately… we are aligned with the star – within 16 degrees (wikipedia). Now, 16 degrees is a wide range for a mere 0.4 degree beam of untold death – still though, a little too close for comfort.
Don’t lose sleep on it though, we’re not in any immediate risk. Though if you wake up tomorrow and the oceans are boiling, you can probably suspect that WR 104 is the culprit.
(with the exception of one WR 104… which, if you suddenly notice that the oceans are boiling… WR 104 is probably the culprit)
*that astronomy link is where I got most of the data for this post.