Stellar Assassins: NASA’s Chandra Unmasks New Cosmic Threat to Planetary Life

Supernova Planet

A new study has examined the possible impact X-rays could have on planets within a certain distance of supernova explosions. Data from Chandra and other telescopes suggest that planets within about 160 light-years could be subjected to an intense wave of X-rays, which may significantly damage their atmospheres. This artist’s illustration shows such an affected planet in the foreground in the months to years after the explosion (seen in the background) after it has been bombarded by X-rays, as well as a second panel that shows the planet just as the supernova goes off. The study suggests that the areas within the Milky Way galaxy where conditions would be conducive for life as we know it would be smaller. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

  • Astronomers have determined supernova explosions pose yet another threat to planets and their atmospheres.
  • This result comes from analysis of X-ray observations for over 30 supernovae using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes.
  • For some types of supernova the researchers found that a torrent of X-rays could be unleashed that last for decades.
  • This type of X-ray onslaught could significantly damage atmospheres of nearby planets, impacting life as we know it.
  • Earth is in a safe space in terms of potentially harmful supernova explosions, but may not have been in the past.

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes have identified a new threat to life on planets like Earth: a phase during which intense X-rays from exploded stars can affect planets over 100 light-years away. This result has implications for the study of exoplanets and their habitability.

This newly found threat comes from a supernova’s blast wave striking dense gas surrounding the exploded star, as depicted in the upper right of our artist’s impression. When this impact occurs it can produce a large dose of X-rays that reaches an Earth-like planet (shown in the lower left, illuminated by its host star out of view to the right) months to years after the explosion and may last for decades. Such intense exposure may trigger an extinction event on the planet.

A new study reporting this threat is based on X-ray observations of 31 supernovae and their aftermath — mostly from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Swift and NuSTAR missions, and ESA’s XMM-Newton — show that planets can be subjected to lethal doses of radiation located as much as about 160 light-years away. Four of the supernovae in the study (SN 1979C, SN 1987A, SN 2010jl, and SN 1994I) are shown in composite images containing Chandra data in the supplemental images below.

SN 1979C

SN 1979C. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

SN 1987A

SN 1987A. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

SN 2010jl

SN 2010jl. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

SN 1994I

SN 1994I. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Prior to this, most research on the effects of supernova explosions had focused on the danger from two periods: the intense radiation produced by a supernova in the days and months after the explosion, and the energetic particles that arrive hundreds to thousands of years afterward.

If a torrent of X-rays sweeps over a nearby planet, the radiation could severely alter the planet’s atmospheric chemistry. For an Earth-like planet, this process could wipe out a significant portion of ozone, which ultimately protects life from the dangerous ultraviolet radiation of its host star. It could also lead to the demise of a wide range of organisms, especially marine ones at the foundation of the food chain, leading to an extinction event.

After years of lethal X-ray exposure from the supernova’s interaction, and the impact of ultraviolet radiation from an Earth-like planet’s host star, a large amount of nitrogen dioxide may be produced, causing a brown haze in the atmosphere, as shown in the illustration. A “de-greening” of land masses could also occur because of damage to plants.

Planet Before and After Supernova

Illustration of an Earth-like planet before and after radiation exposure. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

A separate artist’s impression (panel #1) depicts the same Earth-like planet as having been abundant with life at the time of the nearby supernova, years before most of the X-ray’s impacts are felt (panel #2).

Among the four supernovae in the set of images, SN 2010jl has produced the most X-rays. The authors estimate it to have delivered a lethal dose of X-rays for Earth-like planets less than about 100 light-years away.

There is strong evidence — including the detection in different locations around the globe of a radioactive type of iron — that supernovae occurred close to Earth between about 2 million and 8 million years ago. Researchers estimate these supernovae were between about 65 and 500 light-years away from Earth.

Although the Earth and the Solar System are currently in a safe space in terms of potential supernova explosions, many other planets in the Milky Way are not. These high-energy events would effectively shrink the areas within the Milky Way galaxy, known as the Galactic Habitable Zone, where conditions would be conducive for life as we know it.

Because the X-ray observations of supernovae are sparse, particularly of the variety that strongly interact with their surroundings, the authors urge follow-up observations of interacting supernovae for months and years after the explosion.

Reference: “X-Ray-luminous Supernovae: Threats to Terrestrial Biospheres” by Ian R. Brunton, Connor O’Mahoney, Brian D. Fields, Adrian L. Melott and Brian C. Thomas, 19 April 2023, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/acc728

The paper describing this result appears in the April 20, 2023 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The other authors of the paper are Ian Brunton, Connor O’Mahoney, and Brian Fields (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Adrian Melott (University of Kansas), and Brian Thomas (Washburn University in Kansas).

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

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