Wolf-Rayet 104 – is it a death star?

Posted: March 4, 2008 in science & technology


Newspapers have been reporting the last couple of days the existence of what they call the “death star”, or should we say they have been sensationalising it; Peter Tuthill’s Wolf-Rayet 104 page paints quite a different picture. Tuthill and colleagues have been researching for a number of years now two massive stars, 8000 light years away, circling each other every 8 months. In that process gigantic clouds of gas, streaming off those stars, are stretched into what looks like a catherine wheel. One of those objects, a highly unstable Wolf-Rayet star called WR 104, will eventually die in a huge explosion that might produce an enormous gamma ray burst (which could carry more energy than our Sun will put out in its entire lifetime). This is where the Earth might come into the equation.

Tuthill’s team has concluded that our planet might be almost directly above one pole of the doomed star, the area where much of their energy is blasted from. Link that thought to a comment made in 2003 by Adrian Mellot (astrophysicist at the University of Kansas) who said that a cosmic gamma ray burst from an exploding star triggered a mass extinction of life 443 million years ago, and you get the picture for the ‘death star” scenario (which supposedly can happen any time within the next 100.000 years).

So what are the probabilities for life getting blown out on Earth? You ‘might’ already have noticed so far the frequent use of this little word ‘might’ 😉 . Well, Tuthill confirms that much work still needs to be done “before the idea that WR 104 could pose a threat to Earth’s biosphere should be given too much credence”. For example, “the degree to which the system is pointing exactly in our direction needs to be firmed up with spectroscopic observations. Data so far are just not accurate enough to nail down the orientation precisely”. But perhaps the biggest uncertainty according to Tuthill “is the exact nature of WR 104’s future supernova explosion. The detailed makeup of gamma-ray bursts and asymmetric supernova explosions is a very hot area of current research: ideas are changing and evolving all the time. Our best present guess is that a full-fledged Gamma-Ray Burst from WR 104 is unlikely, although just how much energy might be beamed our way when it does go supernova is uncertain”.

There is another argument though for not panicking: even if the chances increase exponentially for us getting blasted of our home turf – there’s nothing we can do about it … right now. So we might as well continue enjoying our latte and not worry about sensationalist journalism. 🙂

There is a nicely reasoned and insightful discussion of the risk posed by this system at Phil Plait’s great Bad Astronomy website.

  1. MVondel says:

    Very nicely put, Thank You

  2. citizen says:

    Actually, there is something we could do. Right now.

    We could allocate spending to develop and deploy an EM shield that could save our lives.

    Enjoy your latte.

  3. latte consumer says:

    Yeah, allocating money now in our current economy on an event that may happen 100,000 years from now. Great plan. You should definitely be in charge of everything all the time.

  4. reader104 says:

    I like lattes, and also electromagnets. I’m torn.

  5. colin hill says:

    The “death star” really is about birth and growth:

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