Ionosphere-Disturbing Cosmic Gama Ray Bursts Connected to Nearby Massive Star Explosion

L’AQUILA, Italy – On October 9, 2022, a bright gamma ray burst resulted in a disturbance in Earth’s uppermost ionosphere, marking the first noticeable perturbation in the atmosphere since a significant burst in 1983. This revelation was made public as a result of a study published by Nature Communications, conducted by lead author Mirko Piersanti, a space weather scientist based at the University of L’Aquila and the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics.

Piersanti and his colleagues utilized data from the China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite to simulate how the ionosphere responds to gamma radiation from deep space. Their findings suggest that only a very powerful GRB can ionize enough of the low-density upper atmosphere for a long enough duration to be detectable. The challenge lies in distinguishing cosmic gamma rays from the numerous other phenomena that affect this region.

In addition to the value understanding GRBs holds for astrophysics, there are potential human stakes at hand. With more infrastructure and economy reliant on space, the risk posed by GRBs is a concern to atmospheric scientists and researchers alike. NASA’s atmospheric scientist Aaron Breneman emphasizes the potential risks to global infrastructure and economy, with disruptions to communication, navigation satellites, and electrical power grids being potential consequences of cosmic events.

Furthermore, it is important to understand whether GRBs can have the same disruptive effects as coronal mass ejections from the Sun, which are known to impact Earth’s atmosphere and technology. Researchers are eager to decipher whether cosmic events like the 2022 GRB pose a significant threat to Earth and its inhabitants.

Though these findings shed light on the potentially disruptive effects of GRBs, there are several factors that complicate the ability to measure their impact accurately. The ionosphere itself presents challenges, as it is a complex and difficult region to measure consistently and globally. With only two significant GRBs to analyze, observers and scientists are calling for wider collaborations between various scientific disciplines to better understand the potential impacts of cosmic explosions on Earth.

Ultimately, the 1983 and 2022 bursts were powerful enough to flood the ionosphere with ionizing radiation faster than recombination could erase the evidence, but more research and collaboration are needed to fully comprehend the potential threat posed by cosmic events like GRBs.