Giant pinwheel in space threatens to destroy Earth, Bush plans to borrow and spend 3 trillion dollars on orbital “pinwheel defence” satellite system
Astronomers have discovered something alarming in the heavens. (Well, OK, they discovered it eight years ago and have been studying it since.) A binary star system some 8,000 light years away called WR 104. Two stars in space orbiting each other, each is sending a stream of gas toward the other, which combine to form a giant pinwheel in space. One of the stars is a rare and unstable Wolf-Rayet star. If it is massive enough and spinning fast enough, it may eventually collapse and form a black hole in a titanic explosion.
Now normally something 8,000 light years away presents no threat to earth, this supernova explosion might not be normal though. This supernova has the potential to create something called a gamma ray burst, the most energetic event known to man. In a gamma ray burst a tremendous blast of energy is propelled in two streams directly above and below the exploding star. And, um, since the pinwheel above appears to be basically perpendicular to us, we are facing directly down at the star in question…and presumably in its line of sight should it explode.
Yes, a death star has Earth in its sights. What will happen if WR 104 explodes and creates a gamma ray brst? Well, for one thing the gamma ray burst travels at the speed of light, so we will have no warning. In fact the star could have exploded 8,000 years ago, and the burst would reach us tomorrow. Yikes. The good news is that at this distance the radiation would not cause instant death. It would likely blow away a large percentage of the ozone layer, and react with nitrogen in the atmosphere creating vast amounts of smog and acid rain, which would cool the Earth. So…slow death. Great. Life would survive, some humans would survive, but civilization as we know it would likely go the way of the dinosaurs.
Now that we know this, what can be done? I mean, I wouldn’t want to be accused of complaining about something without having a better idea. So after careful thought I have come up with three alternatives:
Build a spaceship that can both travel faster-than-light, and communicate with Earth faster-than-light. Then send it toward WR 104, if it detects a gamma ray burst travelling toward Earth it will send us a warning. Knowing when the burst was going to arrive, if ever, we could make further plans. Unfortunately, a spaceship like this is theoretically impossible, as is a faster-than-light communication device. So, um, we aren’t going to be building one anytime soon.
Move the Earth to a safe distance out of WR 104’s line of sight. Problem solved. Granted it’s theoretically possible to move a planet, there’s still some rather large engineering problems. Move it to where and how to keep everyone alive while doing so being just a couple. Suffice it to say, this is a bit beyond our current abilities.
OK, how about we build some sort of shield to protect the earth? Or maybe giant ozone generators and smog cleansers we could turn on to fix the problem when it occurs? I’m not sure how feasible this is, but we could certainly throw any amount of money at it and do the research at least. Strategic gamma ray burst defence.
Well then, looks like were hosed. Is it really all that bad? Can we stop worrying about global climate change and the war in Iraq and the economy? Sadly, no. Yes, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do if a gamma ray burst is on the way, but the odds are actually rather small. It would have to be pointed exactly at us, and it may not even be a type of star prone to this little cosmic problem. The only thing to do for now is for scientists to continue to study WR 104 and see just how much of a danger it is. Which scientists were going to do anyhow, so we really don’t need to do anything.
Problem solved. See, logic can fix everything. And what logic can’t fix, like this impending calamity, it can at least put in perspective. And if logic fails, there’s always rationalization. And as one last morbid thought, if WR 104 did explode 8,000 years ago and the gamma ray burst arrives to tomorrow sending us back into the stone age…civilization would have been destroyed by something that happened 2,000 years before the first cities were even built. All our accomplishments ruined by something that happened while we were all still living in mud huts herding goats. I think that would be really annoying.
(The above image is a NASA image and is legally reproduced in accordance with their public use policy. Plus if it does blow up and destroy life on earth as we know it, it will become a historically important image and thus also be subject to Fair Use under US copyright law. See, every cloud has a silver lining.)