Massive burst of gamma-rays from nearby star system a real possibility: Astronomers

A gamma-ray burst of this nature has the capacity to strip the Earth of its ozone layer: Study.

In an event, which is second only to the Big Bang, astronomers have identified a "nearby" star system that is capable of producing a gamma-ray burst — one of the most energetic events in the universe.

According to a study, published in Nature Astronomy on Tuesday, scientists have found the first of this rare kind of star system in our galaxy, a mere 8,000 light years from Earth.

Massive burst of gamma-rays from nearby star system a real possibility: Astronomers

An image of Apep captured using thermal infrared imaging on ESO's VLT telescope in Chile. Scientists believe the structure originates from the centre, and the whole system contains three stars. Image courtesy: University of Sydney/ESO

"We knew immediately we had found something quite exceptional: the luminosity across the spectrum from the radio to the infrared was off the charts," Dr Joe Callingham, lead author of the study from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, told university press.

"When we saw the stunning dust plume coiled around these incandescent stars, we decided to name it 'Apep' — the monstrous serpent deity and mortal enemy of Sun god Ra from Egyptian mythology."

Two of Apep's stars are of the Wolf-Rayet variety, which means they are not just massive, but nearing the end of their life. These stars could explode into supernovae at any time, resulting in a cataclysmic gamma-ray event that could create extreme conditions in the solar system.

"Normal supernovae are already extreme events but adding rotation to the mix can really throw gasoline on the fire," co-author Benjamin Pope from New York University told university press. "The rapid rotation puts Apep into a whole new class."

Luckily for us, Apep seems to have its gamma-rage pointed elsewhere.

However, the researchers also report that a gamma-ray burst of this proximity could strip Earth of its slowly-recovering ozone layer, exposing all life on Earth to a dramatically higher volume of radiation from the Sun and space.

"Ultimately, we can't be certain what the future has in store for Apep," Professor Peter Tuthill, group leader of the study from the University of Sydney, told university press. "The system might slow down enough so it explodes as a normal supernova rather than a gamma-ray burst."

In the meantime, the star system is giving astronomers a front-row seat to watch the never-before-seen physics behind the stunning (and lethal) gamma-ray bursts.