The Ancient Space Storm That Struck the Earth

More than 1,200 years ago a collision of two dense bodies bathed our planet in gamma rays

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NASA / P. Cowperthwaite / University of Maryland

A still from a computer simulation showing two black holes merging.

Climate scientists consult ancient tree rings all the time. These year-by-year growth bands, preserved in long-lived timber, can reveal how warm and how wet the planet was many centuries before thermometers or rain gauges were invented. For astronomers, by contrast, the idea of studying the stars by drilling into tree trunks would seem absurd.

Or maybe not. Sometime between the spring of 774 A.D and the summer of 775, a cataclysmic event happened somewhere out in the cosmos — and we felt it here, as a spike of radioactive carbon-14 and beryllium-10. The isotopes were taken up by growing Japanese cedar trees and there they remained.

(Photos: Scenes From the International Space Station)

The tree rings were flagged last summer in a paper written by Japanese physicist Fusa Miyake, of Nagoya University. Ordinary cosmic rays — atomic nuclei and subatomic particles that speed through the Milky Way — create carbon-14 in the upper atmosphere all the time, but at a more or less steady rate. What caught Miyake’s eye was that in this one window in history, during the late eighth century, the level was roughly 20 times higher.

(More: Solar Blob Attacks the Earth!)

When Ralph Neuhauser, of the University of Jena, in Germany, and his collaborator read the report, they immediately began speculating about the cause and in a paper just published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, they have come up with an answer: a violent collision between the dense, compact remains of two dead stars — two black holes, perhaps, or a pair of neutron stars. That conclusion, however, required them to consider a number of other possibilities first, including one of the most obvious: a supernova — an idea they quickly rejected.

“If it were a supernova,” says Neuhauser, “you can calculate from the amount of carbon-14 how far away it would have been.” The answer: between 400 and 1,000 light-years. But a star exploding that close by would undoubtedly have been seen and noted at the time, he says, and even if it weren’t, the nebula of glowing gas left behind would long since have been spotted by modern telescopes. Or it could have been an unusually powerful solar flare or coronal mass ejection — but that, too, would probably have been noticed thanks to the overwhelmingly bright auroras it would have triggered in Medieval night skies.

So Neuhauser and University of Jena co-author Valeri Hambaryan turned to another possibility: the very short gamma-ray blasts triggered when two super-dense objects collide. Such collisions don’t produce a flash of visible light, so you wouldn’t expect to find any records even if someone had been looking in the right direction during that fateful two seconds.

(More: The Super-Duper Planet-Frying Exploding Star That’s Not Going to Hurt Us, So Please Stop Worrying About It)

What such collisions do produce, however, is an enormous burst of gamma rays in less than two seconds. And when those speeding waves of electromagnetic energy reached Earth, they would have zapped nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere, transforming them into just the storm of radioactive carbon and beryllium that was captured by the trees.

If such a collision had happened within 3,000 light-years of Earth, the blast of gamma rays would have been powerful enough to reach right down to the planet’s surface, and it would have been lethal enough to wipe out many species. Since no such mass extinction happened, reason Neuhauser and Hambarayan, the gamma bath must have come from farther away, but still less than 12,000 light years, judging by how much carbon-14 did get preserved.

And exactly where in the sky did the collision occur? That’s much tougher to figure out. Winds spread carbon-14 through Earth’s atmosphere within a few months, so the effect would have been world-wide — meaning that it’s not so easy as looking just in the northern sky that would have been visible from Japan. Nevertheless, says Neuhauser, it’s possible that trees would have slightly more of the element in the hemisphere where the blast first struck. If by chance the triggering event had been a solar flare after all, you’d expect to find more carbon-14 near the poles, where Earth’s magnetic field would have channeled particles from the Sun.

The good news, says Neuhauser, is that this single event is the only one of its kind in the past 3,000 years, which is as far back in time as tree rings reliably go. Black holes and neutron stars can be tough to spot, and if our corner of the Milky Way were packed with either kind of cosmic oddball,we might have to worry about gamma-ray showers as a significant threat. The trees tell us a dramatic — but also reassuring — tale.

More: Volcanoes on Venus? New Clues and Mysteries About Earth’s Boiling Twin

11 comments
Golfer1000
Golfer1000

I guess if such an event was about to happen or had already happened, we would not know till it hit us. Or, is there a way to observe potentially colliding or exploding stars and then predict and extrapoltae the time line so we know when something like this might hit us again? Remember, even if the Sun were to disappear, we would not feel the effects for 8 minutes 22 seconds. Unless, gravitational effects are felt faster than speed of light, there is hardly any fool proof way to know if something like this is headed our way.

CriticalPatriot
CriticalPatriot

I know it's sort of splitting hairs here, but since I'm curious I'll ask:  If the distance of the colliding black holes/neutron stars were around 12,000 LY away, wouldn't the actual collision have to have taken place 12,000 years PRIOR to "sometime between the spring of 774 A.D and the summer of 775"?

Or do gamma rays travel that much faster than the speed of light?  Not being snarky; really am just curious.

My understanding is that the effects would have actually hit Earth during that time frame, whereas the actual "cataclysmic event" would have occurred thousands of years prior to that date; 12,000 years prior if traveling at the speed of light from an event 12,000 LY away.

texasghost01
texasghost01

If we were to get hit with gamma rays now...it would pretty much wipe us out.

oceaprisma
oceaprisma

@CriticalPatriotYes you're right! If the event was 12,000 LY away, it happened 12,000 years ago. Gamma rays are a type of light, so those would be 12,000 year old gamma rays hitting the earth in 775 AD. Gamma rays are light at a higher frequency than the visible light we think of as "light." Think of them as way past violet on the spectrum! However, all "colors" of light travel at the same speed - the universal speed limit of 2.998E8 m/s.

MikeHolmes
MikeHolmes

@texasghost01 Depends on the dosage, which depends on the distance.  An equivalent burst today would probably wipe out much of our satellite based capability, at least on the side of the Earth facing the explosion.

CriticalPatriot
CriticalPatriot

@oceaprisma @CriticalPatriot  Thanks for the clarification! Thought I remembered a physics teacher beating that universal speed limit into my brain at some point, but wondered if I had missed something in my reading. :-)

OMGSG1@gmail.com
OMGSG1@gmail.com

@MikeHolmes  OMG. Seriously?  As an amateur/layman, I try to keep up and pay attention to all newsy-news about space, our final frontier.  This is a threat of a sort that I've never ever heard portrayed this way before, and it's in the category of not "if" but "when."  We're not even prepared for our distant embassy's to undergo a surprise attack.  So, we could, at this moment, be ground-zero for gamma rays on their way from any direction since before Christ walked the earth and it could stop us in our tracks in a way that would take years, decades before we could fully recover, if we survive it. (If a 2-second pulse knocked out our electrics and satellites how would we, when would we, even go about figuring out what just happened?  A sudden invisible 2-second pulse results instantly in no more ground, air, or sea transport, no banks, no phones/TV/X-box, no F-fighters to strike at...what?. No police, nor emergency response, no hospitals,... With our complete and utter dependence on everything electric to work 100% of the time, our US society arguably would collapse.  Being unawares, our first 50 guesses would be wrong; we'd act on them anyway. Many of our guesses (being "anti-science") would retreat into superstition on what just happened, our blame culture would kick in, likely we'd kill off each other never knowing or realizing that what has happened was set in motion beforehand by a few millennia. Howze that for God working in mysterious ways? Amazing article, great comments (esp., 1st observation).  Best,... we hope.

MikeBirman
MikeBirman

@CriticalPatriot @oceaprisma  Another thing to consider is that the further away the event, the more the gamma rays are attenuated (the expanding circle surrounding the event is larger) so that if the gamma ray burst really was 12,000 ly away and it was this strong, it must have been a really violent burst of deadly gamma rays. A comparable event near by would be destructive indeed. Some of Earth's mass extinctions might have been caused by an event such as this one occurring in close proximity. We should be grateful this one was so relatively weak.