Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Did exploding stars help life on Earth thrive?

Date:
April 24, 2012
Source:
Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)
Summary:
Research by a Danish physicist suggests that the explosion of massive stars -- supernovae -- near the Solar System has strongly influenced the development of life.

An image of the Pleiades (M45), a famous star cluster about 135 million years old. This age means that any massive stars in the cluster would have exploded as supernovae when ammonites were prominent in the sea. According to Henrik Svensmark, the rate of nearby supernovae strongly influenced the diversity of such marine invertebrates.
Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech

Research by a Danish physicist suggests that the explosion of massive stars -- supernovae -- near the Solar System has strongly influenced the development of life. Prof. Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) sets out his novel work in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Related Articles


When the most massive stars exhaust their available fuel and reach the end of their lives, they explode as supernovae, tremendously powerful explosions that are briefly brighter than an entire galaxy of normal stars. The remnants of these dramatic events also release vast numbers of high-energy charged particles known as galactic cosmic rays (GCR). If a supernova is close enough to the Solar System, the enhanced GCR levels can have a direct impact on the atmosphere of Earth.

Prof. Svensmark looked back through 500 million years of geological and astronomical data and considered the proximity of the Sun to supernovae as it moves around our Galaxy, the Milky Way. In particular, when the Sun is passing through the spiral arms of the Milky Way, it encounters newly forming clusters of stars. These so-called open clusters, which disperse over time, have a range of ages and sizes and will have started with a small proportion of stars massive enough to explode as supernovae. From the data on open clusters, Prof. Svensmark was able to deduce how the rate at which supernovae exploded near the Solar System varied over time.

Comparing this with the geological record, he found that the changing frequency of nearby supernovae seems to have strongly shaped the conditions for life on Earth. Whenever the Sun and its planets have visited regions of enhanced star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy, where exploding stars are most common, life has prospered. Prof. Svensmark remarks in the paper, "The biosphere seems to contain a reflection of the sky, in that the evolution of life mirrors the evolution of the Galaxy."

In the new work, the diversity of life over the last 500 million years seems remarkably well explained by tectonics affecting the sea-level together with variations in the supernova rate, and virtually nothing else. To obtain this result on the variety of life, or biodiversity, he followed the changing fortunes of the best-recorded fossils. These are from invertebrate animals in the sea, such as shrimps and octopuses, or the extinct trilobites and ammonites.

They tended to be richest in their variety when continents were drifting apart and sea levels were high and less varied when the land masses gathered 250 million years ago into the supercontinent called Pangaea and the sea-level was lower. But this geophysical effect was not the whole story. When it is removed from the record of biodiversity, what remains corresponds closely to the changing rate of nearby stellar explosions, with the variety of life being greatest when supernovae are plentiful. A likely reason, according to Prof. Svensmark, is that the cold climate associated with high supernova rates brings a greater variety of habitats between polar and equatorial regions, while the associated stresses of life prevent the ecosystems becoming too set in their ways.

He also notices that most geological periods seem to begin and end with either an upturn or a downturn in the supernova rate. The changes in typical species that define a period, in the transition from one to the next, could then be the result of a major change in the astrophysical environment.

Life's prosperity, or global bioproductivity, can be tracked by the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at various times in the past as set out in the geological record. When supernova rates were high, carbon dioxide was scarce, suggesting that flourishing microbial and plant life in the oceans consumed it greedily to grow. Support for this idea comes from the fact that microbes and plants dislike carbon dioxide molecules that contain a heavy form of carbon atom, carbon-13. As a result, the ocean water is left enriched by carbon-13. The geological evidence shows high carbon-13 when supernovae were commonest -- again pointing to high productivity. As to why this should be, Prof. Svensmark notes that growth is limited by available nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, and that cold conditions favour the recycling of the nutrients by vigorously mixing the oceans.

Although the new analysis suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that supernovae are on the whole good for life, high supernova rates can bring the cold and changeable climate of prolonged glacial episodes. And they can have nasty shocks in store. Geoscientists have long been puzzled by many relatively brief falls in sea-level by 25 metres or more that show up in seismic soundings as eroded beaches. Prof. Svensmark finds that they are what can be expected when chilling due to very close supernovae causes short-lived glacial episodes. With frozen water temporarily bottled up on land, the sea-level drops.

The data also support the idea of a long-term link between cosmic rays and climate, with these climatic changes underlying the biological effects. And compared with the temperature variations seen on short timescales as a consequence of the Sun's influence on the influx of cosmic rays, the heating and cooling of Earth due to cosmic rays varying with the prevailing supernova rate have been far larger.

The director of DTU Space, Prof. Eigil Friis-Christensen, comments: "When this enquiry into effects of cosmic rays from supernova remnants began 16 years ago, we never imagined that it would lead us so deep into time, or into so many aspects of the Earth's history. The connection to evolution is a culmination of this work."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Henrik Svensmark. Evidence of nearby supernovae affecting life on Earth. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2966.2012.20953.x

Cite This Page:

Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). "Did exploding stars help life on Earth thrive?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 April 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120424095659.htm>.
Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). (2012, April 24). Did exploding stars help life on Earth thrive?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120424095659.htm
Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). "Did exploding stars help life on Earth thrive?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120424095659.htm (accessed November 24, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Space & Time News

Monday, November 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Crew Blasts Off for Int'l Space Station

Raw: Crew Blasts Off for Int'l Space Station

AP (Nov. 23, 2014) A Russian capsule carrying three astronauts from Russia, the United States and Italy has blasted off for the International Space Station. (Nov. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Google Announces Improvements To Balloon-Borne Wi-Fi Project

Google Announces Improvements To Balloon-Borne Wi-Fi Project

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) In a blog post, Google said its balloons have traveled 3 million kilometers since the start of Project Loon. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Crowdfunded Moon Mission Offers To Store Your Digital Memory

Crowdfunded Moon Mission Offers To Store Your Digital Memory

Newsy (Nov. 19, 2014) Lunar Mission One is offering to send your digital memory (or even your DNA) to the moon to be stored for a billion years. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Accidents Ignite Debate on US Commercial Space Travel

Accidents Ignite Debate on US Commercial Space Travel

AFP (Nov. 19, 2014) Serious accidents with two US commercial spacecraft within a week of each-other in October have re-ignited the debate over the place of private corporations in the exploration of space. Duration: 02:08 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins