- Only 10% of galaxies may support complex life due to the threat of gamma ray bursts.
- These bursts, caused by stellar explosions, could eradicate life more complex than microbes.
- Gamma ray bursts kept the universe devoid of life for billions of years after the big bang.
- Recent data suggests that long bursts are most common in regions with low metallicity.
- Life’s best chances may lie in the outer regions of large galaxies, rather than near galactic centers.
Recent research suggests a staggering revelation about the potential habitability of galaxies within the observable universe. Astrophysicists Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez propose that out of the estimated 100 billion galaxies, a mere one in ten could sustain complex life akin to that found on Earth. This startling limitation arises from the omnipresent threat of gamma ray bursts, stellar explosions of extraordinary magnitude.
These bursts, occurring in two forms – short and long, pose a cataclysmic threat to life more intricate than microbes. While short bursts last only seconds and typically result from the collision of neutron stars or black holes, long bursts, lasting tens of seconds, emanate from the death throes of massive stars and release energy levels nearly a hundred times greater.
Curiously, the initial flash of radiation from a gamma ray burst doesn’t directly obliterate life on a neighboring planet. Instead, if the burst occurs in close proximity, it triggers a sequence of chemical reactions that annihilate the ozone layer, leaving the planet vulnerable to lethal ultraviolet radiation from its sun for an extended period. This scenario prompts an important question: how likely is such an event? Piran and Jimenez delve into this apocalyptic hypothetical in their forthcoming paper in Physical Review Letters.
Traditionally, scientists speculated that gamma ray bursts would be most prevalent in regions with rapid star formation. However, recent data reveals a more nuanced reality: long bursts predominantly occur in star-forming regions characterized by low metallicity, indicating a scarcity of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.
Factoring in these elements, Piran and Jimenez estimate the rates of long and short bursts across our Milky Way galaxy. Their analysis pinpoints the more potent long bursts as the primary threat, and the likelihood of Earth encountering a lethal blast within the past billion years stands at around 50%.
Moreover, the research sheds light on the distribution of habitable zones within galaxies. Planets situated closer to the galactic center, with its dense concentration of stars, face a greater than 95% chance of having experienced a lethal gamma ray burst within the last billion years. Consequently, life’s prospects are substantially brighter in the outer reaches of large galaxies, as exemplified by our own solar system’s position, approximately 27,000 light-years from the galactic center.
Regrettably, the outlook is even grimmer for galaxies beyond our own. Given their relatively small size and low metallicity, about 90% of galaxies may be inundated with too many long gamma ray bursts to sustain any form of life. This grim reality persisted for approximately 5 billion years after the big bang, rendering life implausible anywhere in the universe during that epoch.
While some skepticism remains regarding whether these bursts could entirely eradicate all life, the key concern lies in the potential for intelligent life. Bacteria and simpler life forms may endure such an event, but more complex life would face a reset, necessitating a fresh start.
Pragmatically, this analysis carries profound implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. The SETI Institute, focused on detecting signals from intelligent life, predominantly gazes toward the galactic center. However, Piran suggests that this may be precisely where gamma ray bursts render intelligent life unattainable. An intriguing suggestion arises: perhaps the search should be directed in the opposite direction, away from the galactic core.