Nav: Home

Exploding stars may have caused mass extinction on Earth, study shows

August 18, 2020

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Imagine reading by the light of an exploded star, brighter than a full moon - it might be fun to think about, but this scene is the prelude to a disaster when the radiation devastates life as we know it. Killer cosmic rays from nearby supernovae could be the culprit behind at least one mass extinction event, researchers said, and finding certain radioactive isotopes in Earth's rock record could confirm this scenario.

A new study led by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign astronomy and physics professor Brian Fields explores the possibility that astronomical events were responsible for an extinction event 359 million years ago, at the boundary between the Devonian and Carboniferous periods.

The paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team concentrated on the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary because those rocks contain hundreds of thousands of generations of plant spores that appear to be sunburnt by ultraviolet light - evidence of a long-lasting ozone-depletion event.

"Earth-based catastrophes such as large-scale volcanism and global warming can destroy the ozone layer, too, but evidence for those is inconclusive for the time interval in question," Fields said. "Instead, we propose that one or more supernova explosions, about 65 light-years away from Earth, could have been responsible for the protracted loss of ozone."

"To put this into perspective, one of the closest supernova threats today is from the star Betelgeuse, which is over 600 light-years away and well outside of the kill distance of 25 light-years," said graduate student and study co-author Adrienne Ertel.

The team explored other astrophysical causes for ozone depletion, such as meteorite impacts, solar eruptions and gamma-ray bursts. "But these events end quickly and are unlikely to cause the long-lasting ozone depletion that happened at the end of the Devonian period," said graduate student and study co-author Jesse Miller.

A supernova, on the other hand, delivers a one-two punch, the researchers said. The explosion immediately bathes Earth with damaging UV, X-rays and gamma rays. Later, the blast of supernova debris slams into the solar system, subjecting the planet to long-lived irradiation from cosmic rays accelerated by the supernova. The damage to Earth and its ozone layer can last for up to 100,000 years.

However, fossil evidence indicates a 300,000-year decline in biodiversity leading up to the Devonian-Carboniferous mass extinction, suggesting the possibility of multiple catastrophes, maybe even multiple supernovae explosions. "This is entirely possible," Miller said. "Massive stars usually occur in clusters with other massive stars, and other supernovae are likely to occur soon after the first explosion."

The team said the key to proving that a supernova occurred would be to find the radioactive isotopes plutonium-244 and samarium-146 in the rocks and fossils deposited at the time of extinction. "Neither of these isotopes occurs naturally on Earth today, and the only way they can get here is via cosmic explosions," said undergraduate student and co-author Zhenghai Liu.

The radioactive species born in the supernova are like green bananas, Fields said. "When you see green bananas in Illinois, you know they are fresh, and you know they did not grow here. Like bananas, Pu-244 and Sm-146 decay over time. So if we find these radioisotopes on Earth today, we know they are fresh and not from here - the green bananas of the isotope world - and thus the smoking guns of a nearby supernova."

Researchers have yet to search for Pu-244 or Sm-146 in rocks from the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary. Fields' team said its study aims to define the patterns of evidence in the geological record that would point to supernova explosions.

"The overarching message of our study is that life on Earth does not exist in isolation," Fields said. "We are citizens of a larger cosmos, and the cosmos intervenes in our lives - often imperceptibly, but sometimes ferociously."
-end-
Also participating in the study were scientists from the University of Kansas; Kings College, UK; the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Switzerland; the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics, Estonia; the United States Air Force Academy; and Washburn University.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Estonian Research Council supported this study.

Editor's notes:

To reach Brian Fields, call 217-333-5529; email bdfields@illinois.edu.

The paper "Supernova triggers for End-Devonian extinctions" is available online.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau

Related Supernova Articles:

Scientists discover supernova that outshines all others
A supernova at least twice as bright and energetic, and likely much more massive than any yet recorded has been identified by an international team of astronomers, led by the University of Birmingham.
Supernova observation first of its kind using NASA satellite
Their research, detailed in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, represents the first published findings about a supernova observed using TESS, and add new insights to long-held theories about the elements left behind after a white dwarf star explodes into a supernova.
Astronomers find possible elusive star behind supernova
Astronomers may have finally found a doomed star that seemed to have avoided detection before its explosive death.
Stellar thief is the surviving companion to a supernova
Hubble found the most compelling evidence that some supernovas originate in double-star systems.
Supernova may have 'burped' before exploding
Only by increasing the rate at which telescopes monitor the sky has it been possible to catch more Fast-Evolving Luminous Transients (FELTs) and begin to understand them.
An unusual white dwarf may be a supernova leftover
Astronomers have identified a white dwarf star in our galaxy that may be the leftover remains of a recently discovered type of supernova.
Researchers show how to make your own supernova
Researchers from the University of Oxford are using the largest, most intense lasers on the planet, to for the first time, show the general public how to recreate the effects of supernovae, in a laboratory.
The big star that couldn't become a supernova
For the first time in history, astronomers have been able to watch as a dying star was reborn as a black hole.
Seeing quadruple: Four images of the same supernova, a rare find
Galaxies bend light through an effect called gravitational lensing that helps astronomers peer deeper into the cosmos.
Explosive material: The making of a supernova
Pre-supernova stars may show signs of instability for months before the big explosion
More Supernova News and Supernova Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.