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Chandra X-Ray Observatory Identifies New Stellar Threat To Planets

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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, as outlined in our latest press release, has implication 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. When this impact occurs it can produce a large dose of X-rays that reaches an Earth-like planet 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 image. 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… (READ MORE)

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