The Mystery of Cosmic Rays Deepens

The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory’s 48-inch telescope captured this visible-light image of the Pinwheel galaxy (Messier 101) in June 2023. The location of supernova 2023ixf is circled. The observatory, located on Mount Hopkins in Arizona, is operated by the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Hiramatsu et al. 2023/Sebastian Gomez (STScI)

Cosmic rays are high-energy particles accelerated to extreme velocities approaching the speed of light. It takes an extremely powerful event to send these bits of matter blazing through the Universe. Astronomers theorize that cosmic rays are ejected by supernova explosions that mark the death of supergiant stars. But recent data collected by the Fermi Gamma-ray space telescope casts doubt on this production method for cosmic rays, and has astronomers digging for an explanation.

Continue reading “The Mystery of Cosmic Rays Deepens”

It Takes Two Stars to Make a Gamma Ray Burst

Artist’s impression of gamma-ray burst with orbiting binary star. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

In 1967, NASA scientists noticed something they had never seen before coming from deep space. In what has come to be known as the “Vela Incident“, multiple satellites registered a Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) that was so bright, it briefly outshined the entire galaxy. Given their awesome power and the short-lived nature, astronomers have been eager to determine how and why these bursts take place.

Decades of observation have led to the conclusion that these explosions occur when a massive star goes supernova, but astronomers were still unsure why it happened in some cases and not others. Thanks to new research by a team from the University of Warwick, it appears that the key to producing GRBs lies with binary star systems – i.e. a star needs a companion in order to produce the brightest explosion in the Universe.

Continue reading “It Takes Two Stars to Make a Gamma Ray Burst”

Is the Universe Perfect for Life?

Is the Universe Perfect for Life?

Doesn’t it feel like the Universe is perfectly tuned for life? Actually, it’s a horrible hostile place, delivering the bare minimum for human survival.

Consider that incomprehensible series of events that brought you to this moment. In a way that we still don’t understand, a complex mix of chemicals came together in just the right combination to kick off the evolution of life.

Generation after generation of bacteria, insects, fish, lizards, mammals and eventually humans somehow successfully found a buddy and passed along their genetic material to another generation. Clever humans invented computers, the internet, YouTube, and somehow you found your way to this exact video, to hear these words. Whoa.

It’s amazing to consider the Universe we live in, and how it’s perfectly tuned for life. If just a single variable was a little bit different, life as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. Gravity might be a repulsive force. Pokemons might catch you.

Doesn’t it feel like the Universe was created especially for us? I mean, didn’t I already tell you that we’re all the center of the Universe?

I’m sad to say, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that the Universe is 100% completely inhospitable. Well, apart from a thin layer on the surface of our Earth, but that’s got to be a rounding error. A fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the teeniest percent of the volume of the Universe. The rest of the Universe is bunk.

If I was plucked out of our cozy environment and dropped into the near vacuum of pretty much anywhere else, the only resource would be a handful of hydrogen atoms. And what can you do with a few hydrogen atoms? Nothing. It might even give Bear Grylls a run for his money. He might have a little more trouble on a star’s surface, crisping up in a heartbeat.

Into a black hole? Surface of a neutron star? Near an exploding supernova? Please enjoy the crushing pressures and hellish temperatures of Venus, or the freezing irradiated surface of Mars.

Earth itself is mostly a deathtrap. Travel down a few kilometers and you’d bake and crush from the rising temperatures of the Earth’s interior. Travel up and the air gets thin, cold and killy. In fact, without our technology heating, cooling, or helping us breathe, we wouldn’t last more than a few days on most of the planet.

Panorama of one area of Mars, from Sol 173. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Image editing by
Panorama of the part of Mars, from Sol 173. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Image editing by

When you think about the landscape of time, we even live in a brief thumbnail of a moment when Earth is hospitable. Over the next few billion years, the Sun is going to heat up to the point that the surface of Earth will resemble the surface of Venus. And then the last hospitable hidey-hole in the entire Universe, that we know of, will wink out. The Universe is as inhospitable as it could possibly be. That is, without being completely inhospitable.

Especially when you consider the timeframes, and the long future when all the stars have died, where there’s nothing but black holes and frozen matter, and the Universe finally ditches that rounding error, and becomes 100% purely inhospitable.

Cosmologists use a term known as the anthropic principle to explain this very special moment we find ourselves in. There’s the greater anthropic principle that says the Universe wouldn’t be here without us to observe it, but that seems nutty and egotistical.

The lesser anthropic principle says that if the Universe turned out any differently, we wouldn’t be here to observe it.

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

Imagine you threw a dart out the window of an airplane and it landed in a tiny spot on the surface of the Earth. What were the chances that it would land there? Almost zero. What a lucky spot.

You can imagine all kinds of other even more inhospitable Universes, where the conditions were never good enough for life to evolve, and so intelligent civilizations could never even ask the question, “Is Our Universe Perfect for Life.”

So when you look out across a meadow in the springtime. The birds are chirping, and there’s new growth everywhere, don’t forget about the boiling rock magma beneath your feet, the frigid air and then vacuum above your head, and the whole Universe of burning, radiating, impacting objects trying their best to kill you.

Of all the extreme environments in the Universe, which ones do you find most fascinating? Tell us in the comments below.