The Effects of Supernovas

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The Effects of Supernovas

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Directions: Before you start, listen to part of a talk in an astronomy class.

*Vocabulary is sometimes provided in written form when it may be unfamiliar to the student but essential for understanding the lecture


The Effects of Supernovas - Transcript

A supernova is, basically, when a star explodes. It occurs during the last stage of a star’s life, and usually only occurs in large stars like white dwarfs. While these stellar explosions may appear beautiful to spectators on earth, they also have terrible consequences for nearby stars and planets.

Suppose a life form has the misfortune to develop around a star that happens to lie near a massive star destined to become a supernova. Such life forms may find themselves extinct when the harsh radiation and high-energy particles from the neighboring star’s explosion reach their world. Life may well have formed around a number of pleasantly stable stars only to be wiped out because a massive nearby star suddenly went supernova. Just as children born in a war zone may find themselves the unjust victims of their violent neighborhood, life too close to a star that goes supernova may fall prey to having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What is a safe distance to be from a supernova explosion? A lot depends on the violence of the particular explosion, what type of supernova it is and what level of destruction we are willing to accept. Calculations suggest that a supernova less than 50 light-years away from us would certainly end all life on Earth and that even one 100 light-years away would have drastic consequences for the radiation levels here. One minor extinction of sea creatures about 2 million years ago on Earth may actually have been caused by a supernova at a distance of about 120 light-years.

The good news is that there are at present no massive stars that promise to become supernova within 50 light-years of the Sun.