Study in The Astrophysical Journal Investigates the Risks & Spectacular Nature of Neutron Star Collisions

Cincinnati, Ohio – The universe is a host to some of the most breathtaking events in science, with neutron star collisions ranking at the top. These collisions, known as kilonovas, are incredibly powerful and awe-inspiring cosmic phenomena that can have widespread effects in the universe. A recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal has shed light on the nature of kilonovas and the potential risks they pose to life on Earth.

Kilonovas occur when two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole collide, resulting in a massive explosion. These events unleash a variety of potentially dangerous radiations towards Earth, particularly if our planet is located in close proximity to the explosion. The study emphasizes the significant dangers posed by the high-energy gamma rays released during kilonovas, as they can heat up cosmic gas and dust to produce a potent X-ray afterglow, posing an additional risk to Earth.

Neutron stars, which are the key players in these cosmic events, are incredibly dense and compact, weighing up to two times as much as the Sun despite their small diameter. According to the study, the emissions produced by binary neutron star mergers can be dangerous for life on Earth-like planets when in close proximity. The dangers of ionizing radiation, X-rays, and gamma rays can leave the atmosphere vulnerable to solar winds and ultraviolet light from the sun, potentially leading to widespread extinctions and mutations.

The study focused on a specific kilonova, GW170817, which was observed about 130 million light-years from Earth in 2017. This event allowed scientists to calculate the energy released and determine the safe distances from such an explosion: 3 light-years for X-ray afterglow effects, 13 light-years for gamma rays, and up to 36 light-years for cosmic rays. Despite the potential dangers, the rarity of binary neutron star mergers and their relatively small lethality range suggest they are not a significant threat to life on Earth.

The study concludes by stating that while the powerful radiation released during neutron star mergers diminishes the likelihood of life developing in those regions of the galaxy, other cosmic events like supernovas pose a greater risk. It reassures that mergers viewed off-axis are unlikely to ever impact life on Earth in any significant way, highlighting the resilience of Earth’s position in the galaxy. This research enhances our understanding of the cosmos and the delicate balance of conditions required for life, while underscoring the resilience of Earth’s position in the galaxy, safeguarded from the deadly fireworks of the universe.