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Cryo Chamber

Dodging the celestial bullet

A huge explosion halfway across the galaxy packed so much power it briefly altered Earth’s upper atmosphere in December, astronomers said Friday.

But you could not have seen it, unless you can top the X-ray vision of Superman: In gamma rays, the event equaled the brightness of the full Moon’s reflected visible light.

The blast originated about 50,000 light-years away and was detected Dec. 27. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).

“Had this happened within 10 light-years of us, it would have severely damaged our atmosphere and possibly have triggered a mass extinction,” said Bryan Gaensler of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

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Researchers don’t know exactly why the burst was so incredible. The star, named SGR 1806-20, spins once on its axis every 7.5 seconds, and it is surrounded by a magnetic field more powerful than any other object in the universe.

“We may be seeing a massive release of magnetic energy during a ‘starquake’ on the surface of the object,” said Maura McLaughlin of the University of Manchester in the UK.

Another possibility is that the magnetic field more or less snapped in a process scientists call magnetic reconnection.

Gamma rays are the highest form of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes X-rays, visible light and radio waves too.

The eruption was also recorded by the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array of radio telescopes, along with other European satellites and telescopes in Australia.

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