Saturday science subject: The ticking binary death star

— 10:06 AM on March 8, 2008

A binary star system 8,000 light years away from Earth could one day cause millions of voices to cry out in terror and be silenced. At least, that's what a team of Sydney, Australia-based astronomers quoted by Cosmos Magazine reckons. They say the system, or binary "death star," is a ticking time bomb that could have its sights set on us.

The researchers took images of the system, known as WR 104, over a period of eight years using Hawaii's Keck Telescope. These images reveal a vast and glowing plume of heated dust and gas, billowing out in a spiral as the stars rotate once every eight months. This 'tail' is up to 30 billion kilometres [18.6 billion miles] long. . . . But something curious about the images caught the attention of the experts.

"Viewed from Earth, the rotating tail appears to be laid out on the sky in an almost perfect spiral. It could only appear like that if we are looking nearly exactly down on the axis of the binary system," said [Peter Tuthill, one of the astronomers].

This means we are peering down the barrel of the gun, as when binary supernovae go off, all their energy is focussed into a narrow beam of wildly destructive gamma ray radiation that emanates (both up and down) from the poles of the system.

The risk is remote, Cosmos Magazine says. However, if Earth were to get blasted with gamma radiation from WR 104, our planet's ozone layer could be stripped away, which could trigger a mass extinction. Such an event may already have happened earlier in our planet's history. Researchers at the University of Kansas think an ozone-destroying blast of gamma radiation might have been responsible for the mass extinction that caused 60% of life to die out during the Ordovician period 443 million years ago.

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