Exploding stars may have assaulted ancient Earth

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For our Australopithecus ancestors who roamed Africa 2.5 million years ago, the bright new star in the sky surely would have aroused curiosity. As luminous as the full Moon, it would have cast shadows at night and been visible during the day. As the supernova faded over the following months, it probably also faded from memory. But it left other traces, now coming to light.

Over the past 2 decades, researchers have found hundreds of radioactive atoms, trapped in seafloor minerals, that came from an ancient explosion marking the death of a nearby star. Its fusion fuel exhausted, the star had collapsed, generating a shock wave that blasted away its outer layers in an expanding ball of gas and dust so hot that it briefly glowed as bright as a galaxy—and ultimately showered Earth with those telltale atoms.

Erupting from hundreds of light-years away, the flash of x-rays and gamma rays probably did no harm on Earth. But the expanding fireball also accelerated cosmic rays—mostly nuclei of hydrogen and helium—to close to the speed of light. These projectiles arrived stealthily, decades later, ramping up into an invisible fusillade that could have lasted for thousands of years and might have affected the atmosphere—and life.

In a flurry of studies and speculation, astronomers have sketched out their potential effects. A cosmic ray barrage might have boosted mutation rates by eroding Earth’s protective ozone layer and generating showers of secondary, tissue-penetrating particles. Tearing through the atmosphere, the particles would have also created pathways for lightning, perhaps kindling a spate of wildfires. At the same time, atmospheric reactions triggered by the radiation could have led to a rain of nitrogen compounds, which would have fertilized plants, drawing down carbon dioxide. In that way, the celestial event could have cooled the climate and helped initiate the ice ages 2.5 million years ago, at the start of the Pleistocene epoch. Even taken together, the effects are “not like the dinosaur extinction event—it’s more subtle and local,” says Brian Thomas, an astronomer at Washburn University who has studied the earthly effects of cosmic catastrophes for nearly 2 decades.

Few astronomers are suggesting that the supernovae caused any great extinction at the time, and even fewer paleontologists are ready to believe them. “Death from space is always really cool,” says Pincelli Hull, a paleontologist at Yale University. “The evidence is interesting but has not quite really reached the threshold to incorporate into my mental register.”

Yet the supernova hunters believe other blasts, more distant in time, went off closer to Earth. And they think these supernovae could explain some extinction events that lack customary triggers such as volcanic outbursts or asteroid impacts. Adrian Melott, an astronomer at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who explores how nearby cosmic cataclysms might affect Earth, says it’s time to more carefully probe Earth’s history for ancient supernova strikes. Not only will that help astrophysicists understand how the blasts shaped the neighborhood of the Solar System and seeded it with heavy elements, but it could also give paleontologists a new way to think about bouts of global change. “This is new and unfamiliar,” Melott says. “It will take time to be accepted.”

Astronomers believe a few supernovae go off in the Milky Way every century. By the law of averages, a handful must have exploded very close to Earth—within 30 light-years—during its 4.5-billion-year lifetime, with potentially catastrophic effects. Even blasts as far as 300 light-years away should leave traces in the form of specks of dust blown out in the shell of debris known as a supernova remnant. When physicist Luis Alvarez set out in the 1970s with his geologist son Walter Alvarez to study the sediment layers associated with the dinosaurs’ extinction 65 million years ago, they were expecting to find supernova dust. Instead, they found iridium, an element that is rare on Earth’s surface but abundant in asteroids.

The Alvarezes didn’t have the tools to look for supernova dust, in any case. Because Earth is already largely made of elements forged in supernovae billions of years ago, before the Sun’s birth, most traces of more recent explosions are undetectable. Not all of them, however. In the 1990s, astrophysicists realized supernova dust might also deposit radioactive isotopes with half-lives of millions of years, far too short to have been around since Earth’s birth. Any that are found must come from geologically recent sprinklings. One key tracer is iron-60, forged in the cores of large stars, which has a half-life of 2.6 million years and is not made naturally on Earth.

Earth would experience a supernova as a light burst, followed by cosmic rays, then supernova remnants.
V. Altounian/Science

In the late 1990s, Gunther Korschinek, an astroparticle physicist at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), decided to look for it, partly because the university had a powerful accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) suited to the task. After ionizing a sample, an AMS boosts the charged particles to high energies and shoots them through a magnetic field. The field bends their path onto a string of detectors; the heaviest atoms are deflected least because of their greater momentum.

Separating atoms of iron-60 from the similarly hefty but differently charged nickel-60 is especially challenging, but TUM’s AMS, built in 1970, was one of the few in the world powerful enough to tease them apart.

Korschinek also needed the right sample: a geologic deposit laid down over millions of years in which an iron signal might stand out. Antarctic ice cores wouldn’t work: they only go back a couple of million years or so. Most ocean sediments accumulate so fast that any iron-60 is diluted to undetectable levels. Korschinek ended up using a ferromanganese crust dredged from a North Pacific seamount by the German research ship Valdivia in 1976. These crusts grow on patches of seabed where sediments can’t settle because of a slope or currents. When the pH of the water is just right, metal atoms selectively precipitate out of the water, slowly building up a mineral crust at the rate of a few millimeters every million years.

Korschinek and his team sliced their sample up into layers of different ages, chemically separated out the iron, and fired the atoms through their mass spectrometer. They found 23 atoms of iron-60 among the thousands of trillions of atoms of normal iron, with the highest abundance from a time less than 3 million years ago, the team reported in Physical Review Letters in 1999. The era of supernova geochemistry had begun. “We were the first ones to start experimental studies,” Korschinek says.

Others followed. Iron-60 was found in ocean crusts from other parts of the world and even in ocean sediment microfossils, remains of living things that, helpfully for the supernovae hunters, had taken up and concentrated iron in their bodies. Most results pointed to a local supernova between 2 million and 3 million years ago—with hints of a second one a few million years earlier.

A person stands next to a metal cylinder several stories tall.

To detect trace ions, an Australian accelerator fired samples through a magnet.

Tim Wetherell/Research School of Physics/ANU

Although the remnants from these blasts have long since swept past Earth, a drizzle of the atoms they blew out continues. In 2019, Korschinek’s team ran iron from a half-ton of fresh Antarctic snow through its AMS and found a handful of iron-60 atoms, which he estimates fell to Earth in the past 20 years. Another team found a smattering of the atoms in cosmic rays detected by NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer at a position partway between the Sun and Earth. Researchers have even found iron-60 in lunar soil brought back by the Apollo missions. “The Moon confirmed that it was not just some Earth-based phenomenon,” says astronomer Adrienne Ertel of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Dieter Breitschwerdt is trying to trace the iron to its source in the sky. When the astronomer at the Technical University of Berlin learned of Korschinek’s results, he was studying the local bubble, a region of space around the Solar System swept clear of most of its gas and dust. Supernovae were the likely brooms, and so he began to track gangs of stars in the Solar System’s neighborhood to see whether any passed close enough to the Sun to deposit iron-60 on Earth when some of their members…

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