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Researchers show effects on Earth

Researchers show effects on Earth

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A gamma ray burst has dramatically changed the Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists are now investigating what happens when such an explosion occurs near Earth.

L’Aquila – The bright, long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation that struck Earth last year remains a concern for researchers. No wonder, after all, that GRB 221009A was “probably the brightest explosion in the X-ray and gamma-ray range that has occurred since the beginning of human civilisation,” suspects researcher Eric Burns.

Now a Chinese-Italian research team is following suit. The group led by Mirco Piersanti (University of L’Aquila, Italy) published in the specialized journal Nature Communications Study the effect of gamma ray burst on the Earth’s atmosphere published. The study shows: The cosmic explosion literally shook the Earth’s atmosphere. “This was perhaps the brightest gamma-ray burst we have ever observed,” Piersanti said in a statement issued by the European Space Agency (ESA).

A huge gamma ray burst hits the Earth’s atmosphere

The gamma ray burst on October 9, 2022 was so violent that lightning detectors in India were triggered. Instruments in Germany also recorded disturbance in the Earth’s ionosphere for several hours. The enormous amounts of energy that would have to be involved gave Piersanti’s research team the idea to study the effects of a gamma-ray burst on the Earth’s upper ionosphere.

An artist’s impression of a giant gamma-ray burst in October 2022: A black hole shooting jets of matter into space emitting X-rays and gamma rays (purple). © IMAGO / cover images

The ionosphere is the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere that contains electrically charged gases. Its height extends from about 50 kilometers to 950 kilometers. The ionosphere is so thin that space probes can orbit Earth there. The research team used such a space probe in its investigations. The China Electromagnetic Seismic Satellite (CSES) is a joint China-Italy space mission that studies changes in the electromagnetic behavior of the upper ionosphere.

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The ionosphere is hit by a gamma ray burst

In fact, the research team was able to detect a change in the CSES data on October 9, 2022: the electric field of the upper ionosphere changed significantly for several hours. “It’s amazing. We can see things happening deep in space, but they also affect Earth,” says Eric Kolkers, an ESA project scientist. The gamma-ray burst occurred in a galaxy about two billion light-years away from Earth, and still contains Sufficient energy to affect the Earth’s atmosphere.

The effect on the upper ionosphere was enormous: the gamma-ray burst lasted about seven minutes – but the research team was able to observe the effect on the ionosphere in satellite data for about ten hours. The research team now plans to use the data to understand how explosions in space affect Earth’s atmosphere.

What happens if a large explosion occurs near Earth?

In addition, we will study in more detail what happens when a large explosion – such as a supernova – occurs near Earth. “There has been a lot of controversy about the possible consequences of a gamma-ray burst in our galaxy,” Piersanti explains.

Researchers warn that in the worst case, such an explosion could not only hit the ionosphere, but could also damage the ozone layer. Dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the Sun can then reach the Earth’s surface, an effect that may have led to mass extinctions on Earth in the past. (unpaid bill)

Automated assistance was used in writing this article by the editorial team. The article was carefully examined by editor Tanya Banner before publication.