Record-Breaking Blast Hits Earth But It Wasn’t Solar Storm

gamma ray

In October 2022, a space explosion of exceptional magnitude, named GRB 221009A, occurred billions of light-years away from Earth. This event, resulting from the formation of a black hole, distinguished itself with unprecedented intensity, to the extent of disturbing the Earth’s atmosphere.

This discovery, recently detailed in the Nature Communications journal, confirms the hypothesized interactions between distant cosmic phenomena and our planetary environment.

Ionospheric Disturbance: A Novel Phenomenon

Light curve from INTEGRAL satellite observations, revealing the gamma-ray burst. I
Light curve from INTEGRAL satellite observations, revealing the gamma-ray burst. Image: M. Piersanti.

The gamma-ray burst GRB 221009A, occurring in October 2022, displayed remarkable power, with energy peaking at 18 teraelectronvolts. This phenomenal energy caused significant variations in the electric field of the Earth’s ionosphere, an atmospheric layer located approximately 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Specifically, scientists observed changes in the lower ionosphere at altitudes ranging from 60 to 100 kilometers.

The research team, under the direction of astrophysicist Mirko Piersanti, also highlighted that GRB 221009A’s effects affected the upper ionosphere in addition to the lower ionosphere. This observation is particularly important as it illustrates the extensive influence of gamma rays, normally considered harmless.

Indeed, while gamma rays are a regular component of energetic cosmic phenomena, their ability to affect the upper ionosphere reveals a more complex and extended interaction between distant space events and the terrestrial environment.

Gamma Rays: A Distant Yet Real Threat

Luminous echoes of the gamma-ray burst,
Luminous echoes of the gamma-ray burst, produced by light passing through a thick layer of dust as it moves towards us, creating an expanding circle effect. Image: Williams, arXiv, 2023.

Gamma rays represent the most energetic segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, generated during extreme cosmic events. On Earth, various layers of the atmosphere typically absorb these rays.

The impact of the GRB 221009A explosion on the Earth’s ionosphere provides a striking example of this interaction. Despite occurring at incredibly distant distances from Earth, its effect on the ionosphere was powerful enough to be compared to solar flares, phenomena much closer to our planet.

GRB 221009A shining among the stars.
GRB 221009A shining among the stars. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI/A. Levan/Radboud University/Gladys Kober.

This comparison not only highlights the exceptional force of the GRB 221009A explosion but also its potential for a significant influence on the Earth’s atmosphere. Solar flares are known for their ability to disrupt the ionosphere, affecting various aspects such as radio communications and navigation systems. This discovery suggests new approaches for studying interactions between distant cosmic events and atmospheric dynamics, emphasizing the importance of monitoring these phenomena to better understand and anticipate their impacts on our environment.

Implications for Theoretical Models

However, the effect of gamma-ray bursts has not been studied across the entire ionosphere. Therefore, Piersanti and his colleagues sought to measure its effect on the upper side of the layer. Using satellite data, they were able, for the first time, to detect and measure electromagnetic field variations at high ionospheric altitudes.

Map of the impact on Europe during GRB 221009A.
Map of the impact on Europe during GRB 221009A. Image: M. Piersanti.

In reality, the effects were substantial, even though the gamma-ray burst itself lasted only about 7 minutes. The recorded effect on the ionosphere, however, persisted for approximately 10 hours. According to the researchers, understanding this can help us better comprehend and model the effects of distant explosions on the Earth’s atmosphere and predict what might happen if an explosion occurred nearby.

The data collected by Piersanti’s team will contribute to developing more precise models of the Earth’s atmosphere and its interaction with cosmic phenomena, such as solar flares. In the context of this explosion (GRB 221009A), the temporary degradation of ozone could have consequences for human health and ecosystems due to increased exposure to harmful ultraviolet radiation.

This study marks a significant advancement in the research on these cosmic interactions. It highlights the need for continuous space monitoring to detect and analyze these events. This surveillance is essential not only for scientific research but also for the protection of terrestrial and space infrastructure.