Gamma Ray Bursts: Natural ‘Sniper’ From Space

A ‘laser’ weapon with energy equivalent to billions of stars. Maybe that’s the most appropriate parable for GRB (Gamma Ray Bursts).

To find out more about gamma ray bursts, or Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB), we should first understand simply what gamma rays are.

What is Gamma Rays?

Gamma rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation is an energy-carrying wave, the most common example of electromagnetic radiation is visible light. Consider the following electromagnetic radiation spectrum.

The more upward, the greater the level of energy

When viewed from this spectrum, gamma rays have the highest energy levels of all types of electromagnetic radiation. One gamma ray photon even has an energy equivalent to millions of photons of visible light. Because of its high energy level, gamma rays are ionizing radiation, in other words, it can break chemical bonds in molecules. This ionizing property is very dangerous because it can damages DNA.

Fortunately, gamma rays from naturally only in outer space. And on Earth, we have a barrier that protects us from this kind of radiation, it is the ozone layer which is about 30 km above our heads.

You can also read more about Ultraviolet Rays at the following source.

How Does UV Rays Work to Kill Germs?

If Natural Gamma Rays Are Protected From Ozone Layer, How Do We Know?

GRB illustration
Copyright: NASA/Dana Berry/Skyworks Digital

So, in the past cold war, the US government once launched a satellite to detect a nuclear bomb explosion which was tested by the Soviet Union by detecting the gamma rays it produced. Not only were gamma rays from the Soviet Union’s nuclear bombs, but they also detected gamma rays — hereinafter we call GRB — coming from outer space.

After tracing where the GRB came from, it turned out that the GRB originated from a galaxy 6 billion light-years away. Let’s think in simple terms, if GRB with sources as far as it can be detected, then this GRB must have very high energy, releasing energy that is far greater than the energy emitted by the sun throughout his life.

Where Does This Strong Gamma Ray Bursts Come From?

Neutron star collision illustration

This GRB is released along with the death of a star, and the birth of a black hole. There are two types of GRB, GRB with long duration and short duration.

GRB of long duration — lasts about one minute — originates from supernova explosions, explosions that occur when large-mass stars die into black holes.

Whereas the GRB of short duration — lasting a few seconds — originates from the collision of two neutron stars. These two neutron stars orbit each other and the longer their two orbits get closer until finally the collision produces a kilonova explosion and gives birth to a black hole. There is a gas disk which is the remnants of the star collision. The disk is very hot and moves so fast that it creates a very strong magnetic field and makes it shoot gamma rays at its poles that move as fast as possible at the speed of light.

GRB is not like explosions or explosions in general that spread. In its journey through a vacuum, GRB remains focused so that it can be seen from a considerable distance.

The Impact If Earth Is Hit by GRB

Rays of light like this occur and hit our earth about once a day. Fortunately, most of the GRB is too far away so it is too weak to damage our earth.

However, if there is GRB at close range, even with a few light-years the GRB will make our face ‘ripe’. Even if a thousand light-years away, the effect will still be very damaging to the earth. The ozone layer — which protects us from the sun’s UV rays and weak gamma radiation — will be damaged by the GRB, thus exposing our earth to these harmful radiations. The ozone layer itself takes years to be able to recover naturally, a time long enough for all complex living things on earth to become extinct.


GRB is a high-energy beam that radiates focus like a laser in space. GRB is produced from kilonova and supernova explosions. GRB is ionizing and that means it can easily damage the bonds of atoms and molecules, including damaging the barrier in our atmosphere, ozone. Because GRB moves at the speed of light, even if there is GRB at close range leading to us, we will never know until it happens.

Source and Reference:

  1. Death From Space — Gamma-Ray Bursts Explained – Kurzgesagt

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