Weird Science: How to survive a supernova


Weird Science: How to survive a supernova
  1. Weird Science: How to survive a supernova
    nzherald.co.nz
    If we didn't have enough to worry about, scientists have worked out how far we'd have to be from a supernova to survive.Researchers last year revealed evidence of our planet being buffeted a few million years ago by a…
    Science
What's a "safe" distance to survive a nearby supernova? Scientists say 40-50 light years. Photo / 123RF

If we didn't have enough to worry about, scientists have worked out how far we'd have to be from a supernova to survive.

Researchers last year revealed evidence of our planet being buffeted a few million years ago by a supernova - that's the explosion of a massive star - and it's now been estimated that the event took place an estimated 150 light years from Earth.

Still, University of Kansas physicist Professor Adrian Melott said supernova exploding at such a range probably wouldn't touch off mass extinctions here.

"People estimated the 'kill zone' for a supernova in a paper in 2003, and they came up with about 25 light years from Earth," he said.

"Now we think maybe it's a bit greater than that."

Their new estimates pushed out the range of an apocalyptic supernova to 40 or 50 light years.

"So, an event at 150 light years should have some effects here but not set off a mass extinction."

The closest potential supernova is Betelgeuse, about 600 light years away.

Space nukes' surprise spin-offs

Our Cold War history is now offering scientists a chance to better understand the complex space system that surrounds us. Photo / 123RF Our Cold War history is now offering scientists a chance to better understand the complex space system that surrounds us. Photo / 123RF

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Our Cold War history is now offering scientists a chance to better understand the complex space system that surrounds us.

Space weather - which can include changes in Earth's magnetic environment - is usually triggered by the sun's activity, but recently declassified data on high-altitude nuclear explosion tests have provided a new look at the mechanisms that set off perturbations in that magnetic system.

Now, scientists say such information can help support NASA's efforts to protect satellites and astronauts from the natural radiation inherent in space.

From 1958 to 1962, the US and USSR ran high-altitude tests with exotic code names like Starfish, Argus and Teak.

The tests, which have long since ended and detonated explosives at heights from 25km to 400km above the Earth's surface, mimicked space weather effects frequently caused by the sun.

Upon detonation, a first blast wave expelled an expanding fireball of plasma, a hot gas of electrically charged particles.

This created a geomagnetic disturbance, which distorted Earth's magnetic field lines and induced an electric field on the surface.

Some of the tests even created artificial radiation belts, akin to the natural Van Allen radiation belts, a layer of charged particles held in place by Earth's magnetic fields.

The artificially trapped charged particles remained in significant numbers for weeks, and in one case, years.

These particles, natural and artificial, can affect electronics on high-flying satellites - in fact some failed as a result of the tests.

"If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these human-made events," said Dr Phil Erickson, of MIT's Haystack Observatory, "we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment".

Is what you touch, what you buy?

What you touch can affect what you buy, scientists say. Photo / 123RF What you touch can affect what you buy, scientists say. Photo / 123RF

Here's something to consider the next time you're in the supermarket: what you touch can affect what you buy.

Italian and Austrian scientists conducted a series of experiments to show that blindfolded people induced to grasp familiar products, like a bottle of Coke, under the guise of another task were later found to recognise it faster than other brands presented to them.

The researchers say that grasping an object can enable the "visual processing" and choice of other seen products of the same shape and size.

"For instance, when you're holding your mobile phone in your hand, you may be more likely to choose a KitKat than a Snickers, because the KitKat is shaped more like your phone," explained study co-author Associate Professor Zachary Estes, of Milan's Bocconi University.

"What we find is that consumers are significantly more likely to choose the product that is similar to the shape of whatever is in their hand."

When confronted with a choice between a bottle of Coke and a can of Red Bull, participants who held a bottle of Fanta were more likely to choose a bottle of Coke, but those who held a can of Fanta more often chose the can of Red Bull.

"These studies show that our hands can lead us to choose certain products."

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Whats a "safe" distance to survive a nearby supernova? Scientists say 40-50 light years. Photo / 123RF