Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,

[LINK] "Did an 8th century gamma ray burst irradiate the Earth?"

A Royal Astronomical Society press release suggests that, in the 8th century, Earth was briefly irradiated by gamma rays. I'd mentioned the story in a links roundup back in June 2012, but the story got legs.

n 2012 scientist Fusa Miyake announced the detection of high levels of the isotope Carbon-14 and Beryllium-10 in tree rings formed in 775 CE, suggesting that a burst of radiation struck the Earth in the year 774 or 775. Carbon-14 and Beryllium-10 form when radiation from space collides with nitrogen atoms, which then decay to these heavier forms of carbon and beryllium. The earlier research ruled out the nearby explosion of a massive star (a supernova) as nothing was recorded in observations at the time and no remnant has been found.

Prof. Miyake also considered whether a solar flare could have been responsible, but these are not powerful enough to cause the observed excess of carbon-14. Large flares are likely to be accompanied by ejections of material from the Sun's corona, leading to vivid displays of the northern and southern lights (aurorae), but again no historical records suggest these took place.

Following this announcement, researchers pointed to an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that describes a 'red crucifix' seen after sunset and suggested this might be a supernova. But this dates from 776, too late to account for the carbon-14 data and still does not explain why no remnant has been detected.

Drs. Hambaryan and Neuhӓuser have another explanation, consistent with both the carbon-14 measurements and the absence of any recorded events in the sky. They suggest that two compact stellar remnants, i.e. black holes, neutron stars or white dwarfs, collided and merged together. When this happens, some energy is released in the form of gamma rays, the most energetic part of the electromagnetic spectrum that includes visible light.

In these mergers, the burst of gamma rays is intense but short, typically lasting less than two seconds. These events are seen in other galaxies many times each year but, in contrast to long duration bursts, without any corresponding visible light. If this is the explanation for the 774 / 775 radiation burst, then the merging stars could not be closer than about 3000 light years, or it would have led to the extinction of some terrestrial life. Based on the carbon-14 measurements, Hambaryan and Neuhӓuser believe the gamma ray burst originated in a system between 3000 and 12000 light years from the Sun.


Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait thinks the story possible. Critically, it can be tested: is there a stellar remnant in the correct place?
Tags: history, links, space science
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