Deep space: Lethal gamma rays

Releasing more energy in a mere ten seconds than the Sun will during its entire 10 billion-year lifetime, gamma-ray bursts reign supreme as the most deadly source of radiation known to man, pipping X-rays to the post.

Taking a trip just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, you’ll find that gamma rays are everywhere, however, one of the greatest difficulties in detecting gamma-ray bursts is their incredibly short life span, lasting from just a fraction of a second to over 1,000 seconds. While they can’t be seen by our visible light-sensitive eyes, space observatories such as NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which is currently performing observations from low Earth orbit, paints a picture of a gamma ray cosmos, proving just how exotic and fascinating our universe is.

But such a high level of radiation doesn’t just come out of nowhere, there are many phenomena occurring deep in space, spilling out gamma rays from every pore of the hottest regions of the universe. These hot regions produced in the hearts of solar flares, the explosion of supernovas, neutron stars, black holes and active galaxies, provide these sources.

Back here on Earth we are protected from these bursts of gamma rays by our planet’s atmosphere as, unless you’re wearing a suit of lead, any interaction with this ionising radiation could prove disastrous as they penetrate through the human body destroying every cell in its path.

But what would happen to life on Earth if we happened to be in the firing line of some intense gamma ray spewing from phenomena such as the nearby explosion of supernovas, an off-the-scale burst from a solar flare destroying the ozone layer, or perhaps the collision between two nearby neutron stars? The answer is not a pleasant one as exposing life as fragile as ours to such a harsh environment would quickly change our currently perfectly balanced world into a deadly orb setting in motion a mass extinction, picking off and destroying life as we know it.

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