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February 19, 2005

When Things Go Boom...

Fortunately, far away:

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Huge 'star-quake' rocks Milky Way: Astronomers say they have been stunned by the amount of energy released in a star explosion on the far side of our galaxy, 50,000 light-years away. The flash of radiation on 27 December was so powerful that it bounced off the Moon and lit up the Earth's atmosphere. The blast occurred on the surface of an exotic kind of star - a super-magnetic neutron star called SGR 1806-20. If the explosion had been within just 10 light-years, Earth could have suffered a mass extinction, it is said.

'We figure that it's probably the biggest explosion observed by humans within our galaxy since Johannes Kepler saw his supernova in 1604,' Dr Rob Fender, of Southampton University, UK, told the BBC News website. One calculation has the giant flare on SGR 1806-20 unleashing about 10,000 trillion trillion trillion watts. 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. We have observed an object only 20km across, on the other side of our galaxy, releasing more energy in a 10th of a second than the Sun emits in 100,000 years,' said Dr Fender.

The event overwhelmed detectors on space-borne telescopes, such as the recently launched Swift observatory.... Twenty institutes from around the world have joined the investigation and two teams are to report their findings in a forthcoming issue of the journal Nature.... Research teams say the event can be traced to the magnetar SGR 1806-20. This remarkable super-dense object is a neutron star - it is composed entirely of neutrons and is the remnant collapsed core of a once giant star. Now, though, this remnant is just 20km across and spins so fast it completes one revolution every 7.5 seconds.

'It has this super-strong magnetic field and this produces some kind of structure which has undergone a rearrangement - it's an event that is sometimes characterised as a 'star-quake', a neutron star equivalent of an earthquake,' explained Dr Fender. 'It's the only possible way we can think of releasing so much energy.' SGR 1806-20 is sited in the southern constellation Sagittarius. Its distance puts it beyond the centre of the Milky Way and a safe distance from Earth.

'Had this happened within 10 light-years of us, it would have severely damaged our atmosphere and would possibly have triggered a mass extinction,' said Dr Bryan Gaensler, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who is the lead author on one of the forthcoming Nature papers. 'Fortunately there are no magnetars anywhere near us.'...

Posted by DeLong at February 19, 2005 10:00 AM


I guess we chose our galactic real estate well...location, location, location.

Posted by: Stuart at February 19, 2005 10:45 AM

It's more like our galactic real estate chose us -- the frequency with which these things occur is thought to play a major role in determining both what parts of a galaxy are likely to develop life (particularly complex life), and what period of a galaxy's own history is promising for the appearance of such life.

It's even been suggested (in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society) that this may be part of the explanation for our inability to detect radio signals from other intelligences -- we just may be among the first technological intelligences allowed by these phenomena to evolve in this section of the Milky Way. (I imagine other factors are a lot more important in explaining the Fermi paradox, however -- starting with my firm belief that all technological intelligences automatically exterminate themselves when they hit our level of development.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at February 19, 2005 11:37 AM

Yeah and the President says that's what's gonna happen to Social Security too, unless we do it his way.

Posted by: knobboy at February 19, 2005 12:19 PM


Well, I hate to break it to you but you have a right to know.

That bright flash way over on the other side of the Milky Way was our link home. The explosion was on a teleportation relay switch site.

So, it looks like we're stuck here a while longer.

Isaac Asimov explained a little about our background in his Foundation trilogy. But we wouldn't let him publish our historical record as anything other than science fiction. As he noted, it was enough of a clue to explain why we're out here in the far wilderness of existence.

Oh, well. Hope the get the link back up.

Just another set back. But we do need to get off of this rock. It's heating up...

Posted by: Movie Guy at February 19, 2005 01:41 PM

The line that catches my eye is this:

"The event overwhelmed detectors on space-borne telescopes..."

If we wanted to knock out enemy spy satellites, that's exactly what we'd do, e.g. zap them with a beam of whatever frequency they were vulnerable to.

I think we should take this as a gentle brush-back--quit launching those probes, or next time we really blast you.

Posted by: Tad Brennan at February 19, 2005 04:59 PM

[comment spam]

Posted by: at February 21, 2005 06:25 PM