Gamma ray burst in space shook the ionosphere

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The gamma ray burst that hit Earth in October 2022 was gigantic. And it was not without consequences.

L’Aquila – Last year, an unusually bright and long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation hit Earth. Since then, scientists have been researching the gamma ray burst and have come up with interesting discoveries. Now, an Italian-Chinese research team is following suit and showing that the explosion in space literally shook the Earth’s atmosphere.

Researcher Eric Burns has speculated for some time that GRB 221009A was probably the brightest burst in the X-ray and gamma ray range that has occurred since the beginning of human civilization.

“It was probably the brightest gamma-ray burst we have ever observed”, agrees researcher Mirko Piersanti (University of L’Aquila, Italy). He is the leader of a study on GRB 221009A that the research team published in the journal Nature Communications Published.

Huge gamma ray burst brought huge amounts of energy

The gamma ray burst on October 9, 2022 was so powerful that it activated lightning detectors in India. Instruments in Germany also indicated that Earth’s ionosphere was disturbed for several hours. The large amounts of energy involved gave Piersanti’s research team an idea: they wanted to look for the effects of the gamma-ray burst in Earth’s upper ionosphere.

Astronomers suspect that GRB 221009A represents the birth of a new black hole that formed in the heart of a collapsing star. As shown here, the black hole propels powerful jets of particles that travel close to the speed of light. The rays penetrate the star and emit X-rays and gamma rays as they flow out into space. (artist’s impression) © NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde

The ionosphere is the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, which contains electrically charged gases. It extends to an altitude of about 50 to 950 kilometers. The ionosphere is so thin that space probes can orbit the Earth there. The research team used one of these space probes for their work. The China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite (CSES) is a Sino-Italian space mission that studies the top of the ionosphere in search of changes in its electromagnetic behavior.

Huge explosion in space affected Earth’s atmosphere

And the research team was able to detect a change in the CSES data on October 9, 2022: the electric field of the upper ionosphere changed significantly over several hours. “It’s wonderful. We can see things that happen in the depths of space, but that also influence Earth,” says Erik Kuulkers, project scientist at Esa. The gamma-ray burst occurred in a galaxy almost two billion light-years away. Earth – and still had enough energy to affect the Earth’s atmosphere.

In fact, the impact on the upper ionosphere was enormous: the gamma-ray burst lasted around seven minutes – the research team could see the impact on the ionosphere for around ten hours in the satellite data. The research team now wants to use the data to understand how explosions in space affect Earth’s atmosphere.

What will happen if there is a gamma ray burst in our galaxy?

In addition, more detailed research will be carried out into what happens when there is a large explosion – such as a supernova – close to Earth. “There has been a great deal of debate about the possible consequences of a gamma-ray burst in our galaxy,” explains Piersanti.

In a worst-case scenario, such an explosion could not only hit the ionosphere but also damage the ozone layer, researchers fear. The Sun’s dangerous ultraviolet radiation could then reach the Earth’s surface – an effect that may have been the trigger for mass extinctions in the past, as scientists have repeatedly speculated. (tab)

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