Anniversary of a cosmic blast

By Phil Plait | December 27, 2009 7:00 am

sgr1806_artFive years ago today — on December 27, 2004 — the Earth was attacked by a cosmic blast.

The scale of this onslaught is nearly impossible to exaggerate. The flood of gamma and X-rays that washed over the Earth was detected by several satellites designed to observe the high-energy skies. RHESSI, which observes the Sun, saw this blast. INTEGRAL, used to look for gamma rays from monster black holes, saw this blast. The newly-launched Swift satellite, built to detect gamma-ray bursts from across the Universe, not only saw this blast, but its detectors were completely saturated by the assault of energy… even though Swift wasn’t pointed anywhere near the direction of the burst! In other words, this flood of photons saturated Swift even though they had to pass through the walls of the satellite itself first!

It gets worse. This enormous wave of fierce energy was so powerful it actually partially ionized the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and it made the Earth’s magnetic field ring like a bell. Several satellites were actually blinded by the event.

So what was this thing? What could do this kind of damage?

Astronomers discovered quickly just what this was, though when they figured it out they could scarcely believe it. On that day, half a decade ago, the wrath of the magnetar SGR 1806-20 was visited upon the Earth.

Magnetars are neutron stars, the incredibly dense remnants of a supernovae explosions. They can have masses up to twice that of the Sun, but are so compact they may be less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) across. A single cubic centimeter of neutron star material would have a mass of 1014 grams: 100 million tons. That’s very roughly the combined mass of every single car on the United States, squeezed down into the size of a sugar cube. The surface gravity of a neutron star is therefore unimaginably strong, tens or even hundreds of billion times that of the Earth.

sgr1806_magfieldartWhat makes a neutron star a magnetar is its magnetic field: it may be a quadrillion (1015) times stronger than that of the Earth! That makes the magnetic field of a magnetar as big a player as the gravity. In a magnetar, the magnetic field and the crust of the star are coupled together so strongly that a change in one affects the other drastically. What happened that fateful day on SGR 1806-20 was most likely a star quake, a crack in the crust. This shook the magnetic field of the star violently, and caused an eruption of energy.

The sheer amount energy generated is difficult to comprehend. Although the crust probably shifted by only a centimeter, the incredible density and gravity made that a violent event well beyond anything we mere humans have experienced. The quake itself would have registered as 32 on the Richter scale — mind you, the largest earthquake ever recorded was about 9 on that scale, and it’s a logarithmic scale. The blast of energy surged away from the magnetar, out into the galaxy. In just 200 milliseconds — a fifth of a second — the eruption gave off as much energy as the Sun does in a quarter of a million years.

sgr1806_mwmapA fireball of matter erupted out of the star at nearly a third the speed of light, and the energy from the explosion moved — of course — at the speed of light itself. This hellish wave of energy expanded, eventually sweeping over the Earth and causing all the events described above.

Oh, and did I mention this magnetar is 50,000 light years away? No? That’s 500 quadrillion kilometers (300 quadrillion miles) away, about halfway across the freaking Milky Way galaxy itself!

And yet, even at that mind-crushing distance, it fried satellites and physically affected the Earth. It was so bright some satellites actually saw it reflected off the surface of the Moon! I’ll note that a supernova, the explosion of an entire star, has a hard time producing any physical effect on the Earth if it’s farther away than, say, 100 light years. Even a gamma-ray burst — an event so horrific it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it — can only do any damage if it’s closer than 8000 light years or so. GRBs may not even be possible in our galaxy (they were common when the Universe was young, but not so much any more), which means that, for my money, magnetars may be the most dangerous beasties in the galaxy (though still unlikely to really put the hurt on us; see below).

Here’s what Swift detected at the moment of the burst:

swift_sgr1806

As Swift scientist David Palmer describes:

This is the light curve that [Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope] saw, showing how many gamma rays it counted in each sixteenth of a second during six minutes of observation. I didn’t draw the main spike because it was 10,000 times as bright as the tail emission, and you would need a monitor a thousand feet tall to look at it.

The blast was so strong Swift saturated, counting 2.5 million photons per second slamming into it, well off the top of that graph (and the actual blast was far brighter yet, as other satellites were able to determine).

See the pulsations in the plot? After the initial burst, which lasted only a fraction of a second, pulses of energy were seen from the magnetar for minutes afterward. The pulses occurred every 7.56 seconds, and that’s understood to be the rotation period of the neutron star. The crack in the crust got infernally hot, and we saw a pulse of light from it every time it spun into view. This same pulsing was seen by other satellites as well.

The damage from the explosion was actually rather minimal here on Earth. But that’s because SGR 1806-20 is 50,000 light years away. Had it been one-tenth that distance, the effects would have been 100 times stronger. We’d have lost satellites at least, and it would have caused billions of dollars in damage in NASA hardware alone. Of the dozen or so known magnetars, none is that close (though a couple are about 7000 light years away). Magnetars aren’t easy to hide, but it’s possible there are some within 5000 light years. It’s unlikely, though, and I’m not personally all that concerned.

I do have one thing to add: when this event occurred, I got an email from someone convinced that the magnetar was responsible for the earthquake in Indonesia that created the devastating tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people. However, there is one small problem with that idea. Well, two problems, really, the first being there’s no physical way it could have triggered an earthquake! But a worse problem is that the earthquake occurred on December 26th at 00:58 UT, and the burst from the magnetar was at December 27 at 21:30:26 UT, about 1.5 days later. Oops.

But why let facts get in the way of a good pseudoscientific theory?

The tantrum from SGR 1806-20 is one of the best studied events of its kind, and is certainly the most powerful ever detected in the modern era. Astronomers will be studying the magnetar, and others like it, very carefully to see what can be learned from them. If you want to read more, then I suggest the NASA page about the event, as well as the Sky and Telescope magazine page on it, too.

And if another blast like that one comes from SGR 1806, or any other magnetar, don’t worry: I’ll report it right here. Unless it fries my computer. Or just my brain, reading about it.

Image credits: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!
MORE ABOUT: magnetars, SGR 1806-20

Comments (82)

  1. Spectroscope

    Awesome astronomical anniversary BA-man! :-D

    That’s one impressive event.

    I wonder what evidence it left & harm it wrecked on planetary system closer than ours?

  2. Plutomium being from Pluto

    Doggrel in honour of the anniversary of SGR 1806-20 :

    Marvellous magnetar
    You left your scar,
    You quaking star
    Upon the heavens grand
    In X rays
    You blazed away
    So bright but distant are
    Almighty post Xmas shake
    You mighty magnetar!

    (I’d do better but, hey, I”m

    a) a bit drunk &
    b) a bit tired

    so that’ll have to do.

    Thanks BA Great post. :-)

  3. Plutonium being from Pluto

    The tantrum from SGR 1806-20 is one of the best studied events of its kind, and is certainly the most powerful ever detected in the modern era.

    There was one even more powerful in the ancient era?

    Before they had satellites or knowledge of wavelengths beyond the visible let alone magnetars? How did they know? ;-)

    Wouldn’t it be fair to call this the biggest explosion ever seen – a starquake that out blasted a supernova? Or not?

  4. ZERO

    How often does something like that happen in our galaxy?

  5. Jonas E

    “Wouldn’t it be fair to call this the biggest explosion ever seen – a starquake that out blasted a supernova? Or not?”

    It is concievable that an event big enough to have been seen with the naked eye could have been observed. That might have been even bigger.

  6. serenity

    This is why I read your blog. :)

  7. StevoR

    @ 4. Jonas E Says:

    It is concievable that an event big enough to have been seen with the naked eye could have been observed. That might have been even bigger.

    EV Lacertae’s* mega-flare was observed with the unaided eye – or was potentially observable as I understand it – but that was just a dim but nearby red dwarf star and nowhere near as powerful.

    Still you could be right there. :-)

    —————————————-

    * See :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/05/19/the-red-dwarf-that-roared/

    which is still one of my fave BA blog posts & bits of space art.

  8. Haven’t read your posts in months, come back to read out of curiosity … wow more boring gushing about cosmic phenomena. Obsession man.

  9. Messier TidyUpper

    What woud be worse for us, BA & anyone else who cares to answer :

    1. the very closest magnetar (7000 ly?) doing what SGR 1806-20 did those five years ago

    or

    2. WR-104 going gamma ray burster on us (See : http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/03/03/wr-104-a-nearby-gamma-ray-burst/ )

    or

    3. Eta Carinae going hypernova as a Gamma Ray burst?

    @ 7. Naked Bunny with a Whip : Huh? Did I miss something?

    I *like* the BA gushing about cosmic phenomena personally! Maybe it is an obsession but its one that I share! Besides I’m sure I read you posting here just recently & certainly not months ago .. ;-)

  10. Huh? Did I miss something?

    Probably. I should have included a link or a smiley. Mea culpa.

  11. Messier TidyUpper

    ^ Okay, now I get it, Naked Bunny with a Whip. THX. :-)

  12. DrFlimmer

    If the Tsunami didn’t hit the coasts a day before it would have been THE event in the news. It burnt satellites, holy crap!
    And I didn’t have the cool internet pages I visit today. Haven’t heard about that event before – or I have forgotten it. Whatever: Thanks Phil, this is an amazing story!

  13. Huh?

    Goshdurnnit! I was really hoping for something astronomically spectacular happening in *this* year.

    The IYA is nearly over – just three & a bit days to go – & still there’s been no supernova or bright comet or even a comparable magnetar blast to that one mentioned here from five years ago?

    Man, the cosmos sure is mighty inconsiderate of the milestone we’ve honoured it with, eh? ;-) :-(

    Better luck in the New Year lets hope.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Speaking of naked bunnies with a whip, which naturally is the only way to eat them ;B, this related cartoon is also a blast. And so charged with yule cute. *<[:{)

  15. Flying sardines

    Five years ago today — on December 27, 2004 — the Earth was attacked by a cosmic blast.

    Using a magnetar that distant & that massively deadly to attack our little pale blue speck in solar system seems a bit like a major case of overkill to me! ;-)

    Surely you’re not telling us it was aimed at us deliberately? Coz I’m sure there are better ways of attacking the Earth than that! Besides how exactly would you arrange a magnetar-quake? ;-)

    @ 13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM:

    Afraid all I’m getting via that link is the not-so-funny line : “This page doesn’t exist! Oh no! Press the back button!” :-(

  16. “The IYA is nearly over – just three & a bit days to go – & still there’s been no supernova or bright comet or even a comparable magnetar blast to that one mentioned here from five years ago?The IYA is nearly over – just three & a bit days to go – & still there’s been no supernova or bright comet or even a comparable magnetar blast to that one mentioned here from five years ago?”

    Haven’t you been paying attention? The BIG event will be in 2012 when the Earth aligns with the galaxy or something and cosmic destruction will ensue.

    Would Roland Emmerich lie to us?

  17. BigBob

    serenity beat me to it. I too read this blog (actually every day) because I find posts like this one. Cheers BA.
    Bob

  18. Flying sardines

    It gives us this massive super-mega-uber-great explosion & all we can think of to call this marvellous magnetar is SGR 1806-20?

    Couldn’t we have come up with something better than that? Doesn’t a star that puts on that sort of show deserve a better moniker, like say the Whopping Great Exploding Quakin’ Shakin’ Superstar!? (Ok bad example but y’get my drift I hope!) ;-)

    @ 16. Romeo Vitelli Says:

    Would Roland Emmerich lie to us?

    Yup. :roll:

    What I wonder is why 2012 and not 2013 - I mean isn’t ’13 meant to be the unlucky number? ;-)

    (No I ain’t triskadecaphobic – if that’s the right word [13-o-phobe] – but too many other folks are. I’d just have thought that year would hold more appeal as a Doomsday year or for scheduling in the Apocalypse than ’12. As it happens, my bet is that 2012 & 2013 and, for that matter, every single other year is NOT going to be any worse than years usually are. Well, some years might be a lil’ bad but not *Emmerich* bad y’know. ;-) )

  19. Lars

    @Dr. Plait: Awesome. I didn’t know, and am currently at loss of words.

    @Naked Bunny w/Whip: Haven’t read your comments in months, decided to read out of curiosity … wow more boring satire over inane concern trolling. Obsession, man.

    @Flying Sardines: I agree. Media should definitely have made up a catchy name for this event. Except, in mainstream media it was probably a non-event. :|

  20. @ Aerial pilchards:
    There’s a ‘terminal’ / that can be deleted from the URL bar…. very Playboy cartoon at the other end.

    @unclothed lepus with flagellum:
    Iv id veddy divvicut do spek wif yor tong so var id yor chek?

    J/P=?

  21. This may be an ignorant question, and if so, forgive me, but since nothing (including magnetic waves, I’d assume) travels faster than light, am I correct in imagining the event that triggered such a barrage on our little planet actually took place at least some 50 thousand years ago?

  22. Rory Kent

    That’s an amazingly awesome astronomical anniversary, Dr. Plait!

    This post has similarities to a paperback copy of a certain book which I got for Christmas..

  23. rloj

    Posts like this are why I read BA.

  24. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, Death from the sky. Somebody should write a book about,,,what’s that? Somebody DID already?

    Oh, well then. Never mind.

    Just an aside: negative Muons catalyze fusion reactions.

    So to really make a hash of your neighbors solar system, just produce 10^25th negative muons and send them this way, traveling at 99.9999999,,,,% of light speed(so they’ll “live” long enough to get here, since at rest they only survive for about a second.) Such a burst could initiate a really BIG CMB.

    Snark. Maybe it’ll get here by 2012???

    Do I smell a story here. Phil?(hey, it only takes 800Mev protons impacting a tritium/deuterium target to produce negative muons. Easy, if you know how.)

    Gary 7

  25. #13. Huh?

    I think you missed something:

    365 Days Of Astronomy Podcast (an outgrowth of IYA 2009) will continue on in 2010.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/12/13/another-365-days/

    In the post you say that it may not be possible for a GRB event to happen in the Milky Way. I thought Eta-Carinae was a possible GRB waiting to happen?

    Also, how close would an event like that which occurred 5 years ago on SGR 1806-20 have to be to a planet with life, to affect or wipe out that life?

  26. Gary Ansorge

    Ok!
    I suppose this is another lesson in posting BEFORE starting my second gallon of CEI(Caffeine Enhanced Intelligence).

    Post 24 SHOULD read “a really big CME(coronal mass ejection) NOT CMB(cosmic microwave background).

    Sheesh! I need a bigger coffee cup,,,

    GAry 7

  27. Buzz Parsec

    Michael L @25…

    According to the Wikipedia article on Eta Carinae, it might create a GRB, but its rotational axis is not currently pointed towards us, so we would be safe. A good thing, because at that distance any planet in its sights would get a 10x lethal dose of radiation and an energy blast equivalent to 1 kiloton of TNT per square kilometer on the half of the Earth’s surface facing it at the time.

  28. Squidlips

    Were there humans in orbit at this time (I assume that the space station was manned)? What effect did it have on them?

  29. Squidlips (28), that’s a very good question, and one to which I have no answer. I’ll send an email to some folks and see what I can find.

  30. I know nothing of these things, but a couple questions enter my mind after reading this.

    If the burst too 1/5 of a second and the rotational period is 7.56 seconds, I assume that means the vast amount of the energy would have been broadcasted out over about a 9.5 degree arc. Were we within that arc? Also what does the picture represent? Is it just too look cool or would this have been a visible event? It doesn’t seem like it’s accurate considering the rotation of the star and the initial burst of energy.

  31. Phil:
    The light curve you linked to is very interesting. I hadn’t looked closely at it before. I could see some patterns in there that sparked my curiosity, so I took the graphic into PhotoShop and had some fun:
    SGR 1806-20
    These lines trace out the aftershocks that came a minute after the main event.

    The red line I added traces the peaks of the main “epicenter” as it were of the starquake.
    There’s a secondary epicenter as well that I’ve traced out in blue that is visible after the red one. I’ve also traced out in green another smaller epicenter as well.

    If we think of the magnetar rotating as Earth does, then this blue line’s epicenter would be West of the red epicenter. This blue epicenter is also a slightly longer lived event than the red one as you can see from the rightward skewing of the blue line.

    Good thing SWIFT wasn’t on the other side of the Earth like the ISS was!

    So cool that we can detect all this tectonic activity with a telescope that wasn’t even pointed at the target!
    Sorry about posting a graphic here, but it seems relevant. I hope it adds value.

  32. Of course I could be wrong.
    The S&T graphic seems to support the idea of multiple hot spots:

    Hot spots, not actual tectonic plates bumping & grinding, magnetically caused…

    Ideas?

  33. It’s things like this that make me think that complex life is rare in the universe. Even our tame little galaxy is such an energetic place.

    What is the Magnetar population in the Milky Way? And what is the incidence of these starquakes? And their lethal radius?

    Thinking about this is like waking up to find that someone’s scattered dud grenades all around the neighborhood. They might not go off, or an ant walking over them might give the little extra push to go boom.

    Oh well! Back to making snow angels! ;)

  34. Gregg VL

    mcmama:This may be an ignorant question, and if so, forgive me, but since nothing (including magnetic waves, I’d assume) travels faster than light, am I correct in imagining the event that triggered such a barrage on our little planet actually took place at least some 50 thousand years ago?

    No such thing as an ignorant question, and this subject is quite fascinating, actually. Basically, there is no one “true” frame of reference in the universe, so when dealing with questions such as “when did this happen?”, the easiest thing to do (and our convention) is just refer to the time of our observation. That is effectively when the “present” of the star’s explosion made its way to our “present”. Before this happened, the explosion was outside our “light cone”, so it was entirely unknowable for us. And why worry about the unknowable? ;)

    On a smaller scale, when you see someone across the room from you, you are seeing the light that bounced off of them a couple of femtoseconds ago. But you consider each of your “presents” to be the same. This is just that, but on a larger scale.

  35. For one fifth of a second, this magnetar was 400 times brighter than the entire Milky Way Galaxy. That’s pretty impressive.

  36. Sam Nesvoy

    Gregg VL said, “When you see someone across the room from you, you are seeing the light that bounced off of them a couple of femtoseconds ago.”

    More like 10 nanoseconds (1 nanosecond = 1 foot).

  37. Jason

    And if they are talking to you the delay before hearing them is even farther in the past.

  38. Gregg VL

    Heh. Thanks Sam. A couple of ::cough::million::cough:: femtoseconds. :P

  39. Mandelbrot5

    This is the first time I’ve read about this however 5 years ago I wasn’t paying close attention to astrophysics. The first thing that comes to my ignorant mind is that this thing can’t be an isolated event. How long have we had the technology to detect this sort of thing? Is this the only starquake from a magnetar in the Milky Way we know of?

    I guess the question I’m getting at is if they are common, as in every 20 – 50 thousand years, could this be a reason why we haven’t found ( or been found by ) alien intelligence?

  40. Grimbold

    It’s like that old saying:

    Light travels faster than sound. That’s why a lot of people appear bright until you hear them speak.

  41. Derek

    I hadn’t realized how close this event would have appeared to the sun in the sky. I guess that’s why solar observatory satellites like RHESSI were so well positioned to observe it.

    When I put the date and time in my astronomy program, it seems that the location of this explosion was VERY near the sun’s location in the sky at that time. The Wiki article said that if we could see the gamma ray radiation, the magnitude would be about -29 or so. The Sun’s naked eye magnitude is -28.

    (I was wrong here– the article says the ABSOLUTE magnitude in Gamma Rays would have been around -29. I don’t know what it might have been from our location.)
    So IF we could see gamma rays, that day all the sudden there would have been TWO suns. That is amazing.

    I’m glad Phil mentioned this today, because (probably due to the tsunami news) I don’t remember hearing about it five years ago.

  42. Tom K.

    All that distance, all that time, and it appeared to get a straight shot at us. Amazing!

  43. amphiox

    #25:
    As I understand it, Eta Carinae is a big enough to GRB, but whether it actually will (as opposed to regular supernova), is still an unsettled question. The issue I think is whether or not the elemental composition of the star in question (or the gas cloud from which it formed) affects its likelihood of GRBing. The GRBs observed from far away/long time ago presumably were Population II stars, with very low metallicities (and dust content?). Eta Carinae and other younger stars are presumably Population III stars, with higher metallicities. Thus the question is whether or not this higher metal or dust content alters the internal environment of a star in a such a way as to reduce the likelihood of it becoming a GRB, or, alternately, whether the metal/dust content of the original gas cloud from which the star formed imparts different properties to the star (such as rotation rate?) that again reduces the likelihood of it becoming a GRB.

    #34:
    That proposition is dependent on the assumption that energetic events such as these are universally inimicable to the development of complex life. But while this is not an unreasonable assumption, it is only an assumption, with no evidence yet available to support it one way or another. An equally reasonable chain of logic can be put together to argue that catastrophic energetic events will actually promote the development of complex lifeforms by increasing the pace of evolution on affected planets. For example, on primordial earth, a catastrophic environmental shift may have been the trigger that created the appropriate environmental conditions that allowed for the evolution of eukaryotic cells. Another environmental catastrophe may have been the trigger for a mass extinction accompanied by large-scale sequestration of organic carbon, which allowed the accumulation of free oxygen in the atmosphere to a level high enough to support widespread multicellular animal life.

  44. Petrolonfire

    @ 10. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    Probably. I should have included a link or a smiley. Mea culpa.

    Yeah, you always gotta include a smiley or folks won’t know if you’re joking or not! ;-)

  45. Erik the Knave

    Phil Plait: “But a worse problem is that the earthquake occurred on December 26th at 00:58 UT, and the burst from the magnetar was at December 27 at 21:30:26 UT, about 1.5 days later. Oops.

    But why let facts get in the way of a good pseudoscientific theory?”

    So… you’re saying the Indonesian earthquake caused the magnetar event instead? Amazing!

    Silliness aside, I wonder how wide a wave front do we suspect it was that encountered Earth. Are we talking a wavefront in all directions that hit nearly everywhere in the Milky Way in due time, or a much smaller conical expanding wave that merely chanced to have us within the area (a 9.5 degree arc as Christopher Painter@31 suggested based upon the duration and rotation speed)?

  46. Asimov Fan

    @ 1. Spectroscope Says:

    That’s one impressive event. I wonder what evidence it left & what harm it wrecked on planetary systems closer than ours?

    Good question which – combined with the time of year – reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story ‘The Star’. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star_(short_story) ) I imagine planets closer to this Gamma & X-ray blast would be in very serious trouble – maybe the BA can elucidate further?

    I also second the question asked in comment #9. (Messier TidyUpper) :

    What *would* be worst or best for us – a closer version of SGR 1806-20 or WR-104 gamma ray bursting on us or Eta Carinae going supernova? Or would these all pose about the same danger /potential harm?

    @ 32. & 33. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum:

    Nice space art graphic and light curve. Interesting – thanks. :-)

    @ 36. Marshall Eubanks Says:

    For one fifth of a second, this magnetar was 400 times brighter than the entire Milky Way Galaxy. That’s pretty impressive.

    That’s an an understatement! It is a lot more than just “pretty” impressive if you ask me!
    ;-)

  47. Asimov Fan

    For a better link to Clarke’s The Star story itself – in full – click here :

    http://lucis.net/stuff/clarke/star_clarke.html

  48. Just me

    Thanks for the Anniversary note, BA. That’s very exciting, and kinda terrifying. Interestingly, I’m in the middle of the GRB chapter of your book! Coincidence? I think not! ;-)

  49. Grimbold

    @45- As I understand it, higher metallicity means the star is more opaque and its core retains heat better, sort of like insulation. Whether this means the explosion will also be muffled, or whether this will actually increase the force of the explosion, I don’t know.

  50. JupiterIsBig

    Yes, There is the reason I read your blog.
    Star stuff …
    and exposes of Bad astronomy …
    The two reasons I read your blog are
    Amazing Astronomy and Bad Astronomy…. and Good Skepticism.
    The three main reasons ….
    Amongst the reasons I read your blog are such things as:
    Amazing Astronomy, Bad Astronomy, Good Skepticism, Anti-Anti Vax, Links to other great sites like Wil Wheaton, etc, etc.

  51. Seriously

    Is there any chance a gravity wave might have been produced with this event?
    If so, assuming gravity wave propagation is limited to light speed and the intervening matter reduced electromagnetic propagation a very tiny bit below light speed, then a gravity wave would have arrived here before the tsunami. It could have been a triggering event for a geological system about to spring anyhow. More interesting is if true, when did the gravity wave actually arrive, as it is likely the wave would have started a geological process that culminated in the collapse that created the tsunami? I do think the repeated bursts every 7.56 s. are too fast for geological processes to be effected.

  52. astronoob

    One thing that strikes me:
    Given Mcmama’s excellent observation that this event actually happened 50 *thousand* years ago, when hominids were roaming around in groups with clubs and wearing rags or primitive clothing, and the light reached us when we have observatories set up to track gamma radiation, it just strikes me – the possibilities are endless and stunning.

    Consider:
    1. The wave is *still travelling* and possibly knocking out or freaking fields of other planetary systems every (milli?) second as we talk here. (gulp!)
    2. This is not the only magnetar to have burped like this.
    3. Galaxies other than ours will also have magentars. (Disclaimer: I dont know anything about inter-galactic distances :-) )
    4. Did it pulse again? Apaprently not for five years, or maybe given it’s gravity, the time perception there (whoever super being is perceiving it over there) is much lesser than 5 years
    5. Distance is the biggest savior. Say it a 100 times over :-)
    6. How many civilizations, evolutions, species, organisms, life-systems have been nuked/spiked/magnetarred like this before they could contact other intelligent civilizations?
    7. Anything on Mars/Venus/Jupiter/Saturn/Io/Pandora/Europa could get wiped out with a burst like this? If yes, what forensic evidence would remain to show that life was wiped out by something of this kind?
    Of course, of course, this did not wipe us out at all, just our satellites – but what about where something like this did disrupt some planet’s magnetic field?
    8. Methinks this makes for great science fiction movies :-)

  53. Anonymous Snowboarder

    “A fireball of matter erupted out of the star at nearly a third the speed of light, and the energy from the explosion moved — of course — at the speed of light itself.”

    So .. in another 100K years we get hit with the matter component, assuming it hasn’t slowed significantly. Given the densities involved I’d assume the quantity to be large in absolute terms.

  54. Joakim Rosqvist

    How did you get the “32 on Richter scale” value?
    Sun’s output in 150000 years = 150000*365*86400*3.846e26W = 1.8e39 Joule
    2004 Tsunami according to the Richter_magnitude_scale on Wikipedia = 9.3 or 4.77e20 Joule.
    So this event was 1.8e39 / 4.77e20 = 3.77e18 times more energetic than the Tsunami.
    Every 2 steps on the Richter scale is 1000 times more energy, so a factor 3.77e18 corresponds to about 12 Richter steps, putting the magnetar at about 21.5.

  55. Tim

    I could find no reports of any big green monsters rampaging on 12/27/04. What a gyp…

  56. @ mandlebrot & astronoob:

    I guess the question I’m getting at is if they are common, as in every 20 – 50 thousand years, could this be a reason why we haven’t found ( or been found by ) alien intelligence?

    That’s the first thing that bored its way into my skull.

    I’ve often suspected that “Drake’s Equation” was weighted way too heavily in favor of intelligent life. It seems the universe is much more hostile — especially to electronics-based civilization — than once thought. Add to that the apparent insanity that seems inherent to self-awareness, and you’ve reduced the odds by quite a bit.

    Who knows, maybe we are alone…if not in space, at least in this particular time.

  57. threeoutside

    “Who knows, maybe we are alone…if not in space, at least in this particular time.” For some reason, that statement gave me chillier chills than the rest of this story.

  58. cribster

    So this tantrum from SGR 1806-20 happened 50,000 years ago. I wonder what it’s been up to since then?

  59. earth2allie

    I remember this and it was glorious! Maybe BA can advise, but I would imagine it did emit in the optical wavelengths too (though primarily in gamma ray), though it was probably difficult to observe naked-eye since it was blocked by all the stuff between us and it, including the Galactic Center. I think it also occurred during daylight hours on the east coast. However, I do recall talking with a friend who observed the afterglow with an optical interferometer based in Chile.

  60. @ threeoutside:

    My work here is done.

  61. Jake

    Did we even get hit at its maximum intensity? That is to say, given that the starquake side might not have been fully facing us at the moment of its true peak, couldn’t what we measure as its peak just be flash of brightness as the already-starting-to-subside starquake rotated into view, a second or two after its actual output peak? (which would have flashed in another direction)

    Btw, if I’m thinking about this correctly, after the initial peak, the dimming EM radiation would radiate out in a shell shape a bit reminiscent of the shape of a nautilus shell missing its septa, except that instead of the equatorial cross-section being a logarithmic spiral as with the nautilus shell, the cross-section would be an Archimedean spiral. One could imagine there being an interesting visual effect (from the perspective of some improbably radiation-proof being a light hour or so a away who can manage not to be blinded by the initial peak). In the minutes after the initial ejection of matter, as the expanding snail shell of high-energy photons catches up with the (basically hemispherical) shell of matter initially blown off at c/3, there would be an interesting light echo effect, wouldn’t there? It seems to me that the high-energy photons, catching up with the matter, would sweep across the matter shell with a period of 2/3 of the star’s rotation period.

    Also, as Anonymous Snowboarder asked, could we be due for some high energy particles in a hundred thousand years? =P

  62. Grimbold

    @Astronoob (#55)

    “when hominids were roaming around in groups with clubs and wearing rags or primitive clothing”

    -I believe those are called “golfers”.

  63. James

    Joakim, quarter of a million years is 250 000, not 150 000

  64. Joakim Rosqvist

    James: it says 150000 on the NASA page referred to. Besides, 150k or 250k years only makes a difference of about 0.15 Richter magnitude steps.

  65. astronoob

    @kuhnigget – missed that. duh.

    One last point from my amateur viewpoint – do those “futuristic space wars” fanatics take these kind of things into account before trying to design satellite / space warfare machinery?
    Seeing that this *coincided* with the tsunami – just 1 day late over 50,000 years – what if it were to coincide with an elaborate space-based war (motives are always stupid of course) and change the result of the war?
    Not hinting that war-lovers think deeply or anything like that, but this is big factor.
    So many people talk of migrating to other worlds in massive ships in 100 years time – is that really feasible given these kind of events?
    Should they not focus on keeping Earth intact and healthy instead…?
    Just a thought…

  66. Spectroscope

    @ 69. astronoob Says:

    “So many people talk of migrating to other worlds in massive ships in 100 years time – is that really feasible given these kind of events? Should they not focus on keeping Earth intact and healthy instead…?”

    Who says we can’t do *both* ;-)

    This doesn’t have to be either / or, zero /sum y’know!

    “what if it were to coincide with an elaborate space-based war and change the result of the war?”

    If I remember right, there were a number of scares caused by bolides (asteroids /comets /air burst meteors) during the Cold War some of which came frighteningly close to triggering a full scale thermonuclear exchange. :-(

    “(motives are always stupid of course)”

    Always?

    You could be right if you said “usually” but there is the odd war that is truly necessary and justified. (Eg. World War II, the War against Al Quaida, Athens protecting itself from Persia, etc …) Sad though it might be, this is, I think, the grim reality. :-(

    “One last point from my amateur viewpoint – do those “futuristic space wars” fanatics take these kind of things into account before trying to design satellite / space warfare machinery?”

    At a guess I’d say ‘yes’ because people *do* know that space has these radiation hazards and most military equipment is hardened and shielded in various ways against spikes of cosmic rays, reasonable astronomical events & even relatively nearby nuclear blasts. I think.

    But I don’t know exactly who you are referring to there so I can’t really answer for them.

    Perhaps you should direct your question to those you think of as “futuristic spacewar fanatics” instead of us? If you ask politely, they may even teach you something and perhaps convince you that they are not as crazy or nasty as you seem to think they are?

    “So many people talk of migrating to other worlds in massive ships in 100 years time – is that really feasible given these kind of events?”

    Well, it depends and a lot of the ideas you are talking about are science fictional at present.

    But again, I’d say ‘yes’ – people do know about these things and do have the ingenuity to construct and consider safegauards and shielding.

    Most commonly, the ideas I’ve read for dealing with such hazards involve using an asteroid or cometary nucleus and burrowing deep into it so the outer layers act as shielding but I’ve also seen sugestions for special water and soil lined shelters, magnetic shielding and so forth.

    People are clever enough to forsee such dangers and work out protections against them. Whether such methods as suggested will really work we – or our children or grandchildren – may be lucky enough to discover for sure and & put into practice one day – I hope.

    I sure hope it really is *our* children or grandchildren that get to do this anyway.

  67. firemancarl

    About the picture of our galaxy. I thought we were further out towards the edge of the galaxy. That picture makes lit look like we are pretty darn close to the galactic core.

  68. unreal

    @ spectroscope “war on al quaeda” — BWAHAHAHAHAAAAAA

    you mean the same al quaeda founded and supported by the CIA since the 80’s?

    What a crock. Apparently you don’t know the first thing about physics or you’d realize the official 911 story is COMPLETELY BOGUS. THREE steel-framed skyscrapers collapse in their own footprint into dust and molten steel at near free-fall speed due to burning kerosene jet fuel?

    Yeah sure, dude.

    http://patriotsquestion911.com

    This was a fascinating thread til I read that tripe

  69. UninformedLuddite

    For those commenting regarding the effect of events like this on closer stars/planets I offer this: Some time ago I read a paper(no idea who) that postulated that events such as this occurred regularly enough(and close by enough) to knock technological civilisations back to their stone age equivalent every quarter of a million years or so. It was a very good read and seemed quite plausible. It gave a very good argument as to why we don’t get ‘visitors’ from other planets. If anyone here knows of/has a link to this paper could you please share it for those not fortunate enough to have read it.

  70. Vern

    That was a riveting read. Thanks, Phil.

  71. Sabrina

    @43
    Just catching up after the holidays, but if the absolute magnitude was -28, and if I got the formula entered into wolfram alpha correctly, then the apparent magnitude would have been around -12. Had it been visible light and not blocked by the sun, it would have been nearly as bright as a full moon.

    I am almost glad it wasn’t, could you imagine the end of the world scares it would have caused?

  72. One thing’s for sure This was a massive event but what gives anyone the right to say there is no other intelligent life in the Universe?? After All we are here aren’t we or are we just figments of our own imagination? Actually that wouldn’t surprise me either, given that we have the audacity to even think we are particularly Intelligent. Damn! We could well be the Dumbest of any intelligence above zero. We can see things with our own eyes and still refuse to believe it is happening.

    Our existence isn’t quite random. It is dependent on many factors even outside the conditions we enjoy on the Planet Earth but all in all when those factors reach just the right balance life comes into being, no gods, no outside interference. If this can happen here then it can happen in other set positions through out the Universe. Let us study and enjoy the moment, not panic about the possible outcomes. There is too much to learn yet without wasting time on useless speculations.
    “All is as it Should be in the Universe”

  73. Omeganian

    I ran the math based on Wikipedia figures… it’s 23 Richter, not 32.

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