Did a supernova cause Earth’s mass extinction 360 million years ago?

One of the worst extinction occasions in Earth’s historical past might have been triggered by a supernova, the violent dying of a distant star.About 75% of all species on Earth died out on the finish of the Devonian Period, almost 360 million years in the past. Rocks from this period protect many hundreds of spores that seem like scorched by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, indicating that one thing went severely fallacious with our protecting ozone layer.The harmful drive might have come from very far afield, a new examine suggests.Related: Great photos of supernova explosions”Earth-based catastrophes such as large-scale volcanism and global warming can destroy the ozone layer, too, but evidence for those is inconclusive for the time interval in question,” lead writer Brian Fields, a professor of physics and astronomy on the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, mentioned in a assertion. “Instead, we propose that one or more supernova explosions, about 65 light-years away from Earth, could have been responsible for the protracted loss of ozone,” Fields mentioned. “To put this into perspective: One of the closest supernova threats today is from the star Betelgeuse, which is over 600 light-years away and well outside of the kill distance of 25 light-years,” co-author Adrienne Ertel, a graduate pupil in Fields’ analysis group, mentioned in the identical assertion. Death by exploding star?Supernovas, which finish the lives of big stars like Betelgeuse, can hit Earth life with a highly effective one-two punch. Highly energetic UV, X-ray and gamma radiation delivers the primary wallop, and the second comes from swarms of charged particles known as cosmic rays which are accelerated to super speeds by the explosion. This combo can injury Earth’s ozone layer for 100,000 years or so, examine group members mentioned.Fossil proof means that biodiversity decreased considerably for about 300,000 years on the finish of the Devonian, which is commonly known as “The Age of Fishes” due to its super fish variety. So the end-Devonian extinction might have concerned a number of completely different dramatic occasions — maybe two or extra close by supernova explosions.”This is entirely possible,” mentioned examine co-author Jesse Miller, one other grad pupil in Fields’ lab. “Massive stars usually occur in clusters with other massive stars, and other supernovae are likely to occur soon after the first explosion.”The researchers prompt a technique to check their speculation: search for the radioactive isotopes plutonium-244 and samarium-146 in rocks and fossils from the end-Devonian time interval. (Isotopes are variations of chemical parts with completely different numbers of neutrons of their nuclei.)”Neither of these isotopes occurs naturally on Earth today, and the only way they can get here is via cosmic explosions,” examine co-author Zhenghai Liu, an undergraduate pupil on the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, mentioned in the identical assertion.Such a search has not but occurred, examine group members mentioned.Supernova vs. EarthFields and his group aren’t the primary researchers to search out doable hyperlinks between supernovas and extinction occasions. For instance, a completely different group just lately proposed that a supernova contributed to the minor mass extinction on the finish of the Pliocene epoch, about 2.6 million years in the past.Such concepts will not be precisely outre, on condition that we have already got a documented case of dramatic dying from above. The mass extinction on the finish of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years in the past, which famously did within the non-avian dinosaurs, was doubtless triggered when a comet or asteroid about 6 miles (10 kilometers) huge slammed into Earth.”The overarching message of our study is that life on Earth does not exist in isolation,” Fields mentioned. “We are citizens of a larger cosmos, and the cosmos intervenes in our lives — often imperceptibly, but sometimes ferociously.”The end-Devonian and end-Cretaceous occasions are two of the 5 mass extinctions that scientists have historically acknowledged. However, there’s a rising consensus that we’re now residing via a sixth mass extinction — one precipitated primarily by humanity, with world warming and habitat destruction two of the largest drivers. The new examine was printed on-line Tuesday (Aug. 18) within the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Mike Wall is the writer of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a e book concerning the seek for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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