Something Gamma this Way Comes...

Last Updated: July 2, 2011


Speculation is swirling like the galaxy itself over how gamma rays, cosmic radiation, a galactic superwave, an asteroid or an interstellar dust cloud will impact the planet in coming years. To better understand what's going on, let's start by reviewing a few of the key terms used by astronomers:

supernova: explosion of a mostly burnt-out star. In the case of a large exploding star, or hypernova, radioactive energy shoots out into space in two concentrated beams, each emanating from one end of the star's axis (or poles). The event is known as a gamma ray burst.

gamma rays: electromagnetic beams of light whose wavelengths are short but the frequencies and energy are high, thus producing a penetrating form of radiation. Traveling at the speed of light , the rays may be produced by hypernova explosions or a collision between two neutron stars. (A neutron star is one that has already experienced a supernova.) In the laboratory, gamma rays are used to treat cancer, but in strong doses they destroy most forms of life.

heliosphere: a protective bubble around our solar system. The bubble is created by the solar wind, which blows outward from the Sun, far beyond Pluto. That keeps most (but not all) interstellar dust away from us. The boundary between the solar system and interstellar space is called the heliopause.

cosmic radiation: charged particles (sometimes called rays) created by violent processes in outer space. Those particles that do reach the Earth are mostly fended off by our magnetosphere. However, a little seepage is considered normal. Each of us receives about ten chest x-rays worth of radiation from both the Sun and outer space annually.

interstellar medium: the hydrogen gas, plasma, dust clouds and other material in space out of which stars form. Nebulae are a visible part of the medium. Currently, our solar system is inching slowly through an arm of the Milky Way galaxy where the interstellar medium is believed to be much denser than elsewhere in space.The strength of electromagnetic radiation found in the gases and other material varies.


Infra-red imaging produced this top-view image of our position in the galaxy. The Sun makes a complete revolution (or orbit) around the center of it every 200 million years. At the same time, every 36-44 million years, our solar systems bobs up and back down through the plane (galactic equator), like a horse on a carousel. It's along the plane where the cosmic particles are thickest. Fortunately, we're several light years above it right now and rising. We're also moving laterally within the spiral arm.

Astronomy buffs have traditionally spent a lot of time debating the next meteor strike. Yet the threat from gamma rays may be even more pressing. While the Sun is mostly successful in keeping those interstellar particles away from the planets, as mentioned above, measurements made by the Ulysses deep space probe a few years ago revealed that the pressure driving the solar wind has been steadily decreasing — down about 20 percent in the last decade alone. It's unclear why the Sun's big outwardly-blowing fan has lost its punch, but the heliosphere appears to be shrinking in consequence. That could make us more vulnerable to gamma ray bursts and other cosmic radiation in the near future.

In fact, Russia's leading astrophysicist Alexander Dmitriev is convinced that huge doses of cosmic rays are blasting through the heliopause today. He's quoted in Lawrence Joseph's book Apocalypse 2012 detailing what almost sounds like a SHTF scenario:

"Effects here on Earth are to be found in the acceleration of the magnetic pole shift, in the vertical and horizontal ozone content distribution, and in the increased frequency and magnitude of significant catastrophic climatic events... The adaptive responses of the biosphere, and humanity, to these new conditions may lead to a total global revision of the range of species and life on Earth."

Reshmi Mukherjee, who chairs the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Columbia University, explains in the same chapter that whenever the galaxy's spiral arms shift position, they generate a shock wave of radioactive energy. As these particles travel past the Earth, she says they actually do something beneficial by tempering the impact of solar flares on our atmosphere.

But Dmitriev and the Russian Academy of Sciences are having none of that. They insist that vast, if not fatal, amounts of cosmic radiation are penetrating the solar system. As additional proof, they point to the increasing brightness of Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as aurora activity on the poles of those planets and the growth of the magnetosphere on Uranus. Here on Earth, they blame some of the severe weather in the last decade on the presence of considerably more cloud cover than normal. While it has never been confirmed, they (and other scientists) claim some clouds in the sky may be formed from an accumulation of cosmic particles.

Death Star Could Supernova Any Day

While Dmitriev's cosmic crop dusting portends badly over a period of time, a binary star system in the Sagittarius constellation may be on the verge of "going supernova" soon, astronomers believe. One of the two stars of the system known as WR104 is classified as a Wolf-Rayet star. That means it's both massive and rotating swiftly, generating strong stellar winds. This makes WR104 a candidate for a gamma ray burst (GRB). What's worse, the axis pole on one side of the Wolf Rayet star is pointed almost directly at Earth.

Since the star system is 8,000 light years away, it's fortunately not close enough to vaporize us. However, a well-aimed GRB might still take out half of Earth's ozone layer. The loss of the ozone would result in ultraviolet radiation bathing the planet long after the gamma rays have passed.

Keck Observatory
Infrared image of the WR104 binary star system.

Researchers at Washburn University in Kansas announced in 2004 that a GRB is most likely to blame for the Ordovician mass extinction 445 million years ago. Astrophysicist Brian Thomas, also at Washburn, created a computer model showing how a GRB would soak the planet in acid rain and trigger the onset of an ice age.

Oliver Reiser, a friend of Albert Einstein's, wrote back in the 1970's that evolution on Earth may have been spurred on by periodic zaps of gamma radiation. In his book The Intent of Creation, Reiser theorized that such rays routinely hit the planet at intervals determined by the 26,000-year precession cycle.

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More Resources

Articles of Interest

"Death Rays From Space: How Bad Are They?" By Michael Schirber. Astrobiology Magazine 8/2709

"The Dying Star with Deadly Potential." Discovery News 8/4/09.

"Gamma-Ray Burst Caused Mass Extinction?" National Geographic 4/3/09.

Did a gamma-ray burst initiate the late Ordovician mass extinction? International Journal of Astrobiology (4/12/04)

"Ulysses Data Reveals Solar Wind Decreasing."

"GLAST Successfully Launches, Prepares to Scan Sky for Gamma-Rays." 6/11/08

"VERITAS Discovers Very High Energy Gamma Rays from the Starburst Galaxy M82." National Science Foundation press release. 11/2/09.

"Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe." By Michael Brooks. The New Scientist 3/23/09

"Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts (of a technological collapse...)" Space Studies Board, National Academy of Sciences. Released 1/2009.

"Sun's protective 'bubble' is shrinking." Telegraph, U.K. 10/19/08

"Does a Companion Star to the Sun Cause Earth's Periodic Mass Extinctions?" LBL Research Review Spring 1987.

Questions and Answers Regarding What the Next Superwave Might be Like. Paul LaViolette.


Gamma Ray Astronomy

Swift Gamma Ray Bust Explorer
Penn State University

Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope Formerly GLAST.

Interstellar Boundary Explorer NASA Southwest Research Institute

How Fallout Shelters Work

Eleven Steps to Surviving Radiation

Preparing for a Nuclear Blast FEMA.

NASA Satellites (image)

SuperWave Theory - Interview with Dr. Paul LaViolette YouTube video


Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization's End (2007) by Lawrence E. Joseph.

Earth Under Fire: Humanity's Survival of the Apocalypse (1997) by Paul A. LaViolette

Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End (2008) by Philip Plait.

A Guide to the End of the World (2002) by Bill McGuire.

The Intent of Creation (1978) by Oliver Reiser.

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