Cosmic Rays: By-Product of Distant Alien Warfare?

By Kevin Grazier | September 9, 2010 11:11 am

One of the most energetic phenomena observed (to date anyway) are gamma ray bursts or GRBs. As the name implies, GRBs are brief, but super intense, pulses of gamma ray energy that have been observed in distant galaxies. Two types of gamma ray bursts have been observed (to date anyway): long-period gamma ray bursts last for seconds to minutes and seem to be associated with supernova events; short period bursts last for milliseconds and may represent a cataclysmic outpouring of energy from colliding neutron stars.

Similar to the polar emissions from a neutron star, seen as a pulsar if the observer is within the cone traced out by the polar streams, gamma ray emissions from a GRB are very directional as well as intense. If a GRB went off anywhere within our galaxy, yes the entire galaxy, and Earth was in line with one of the two polar beams, all life on Earth would be extinct within hours. In his book “Death from the Skies,” fellow Discover blogger Phil Plait has a great description of what life on Earth would be like in its last minutes, and my co-author Ges Seger and I examined this phenomena in this short story.  Now before you lie awake at night worrying, here’s a podcast describing why we should be safe from GRBs.

GRBs were first discovered in 1967 by the Cold-War-era Vela satellites–satellites designed to detect the gamma ray pulses emitted by nuclear weapons tests. When the Velas began sensing gamma ray pulses that weren’t coming from Earth, the initial reaction was that those darned Rooskies were testing nukes beyond the moon. Cooler heads prevailed, and GRBs were observed to be occurring isotropically–or equally likely in any direction. Numerous hypotheses were advanced to explain them before science settled on the current models.

Some of these hypotheses are less mainstream, but more fun, than others. One of my favorite “must read” online columns is Gregg Easterbrook’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” on ESPN. TMQ is a nerd-friendly analysis of the past week in the NFL, sprinkled with asides on politics, science, and science fiction. Mr. Easterbrook maintains that GRBs may, in fact be muzzle flashes from distant alien doomsday weapons:

Bummer Cosmic Thought: SwiftNASA700x890Recently, astronomers glimpsed the most distant gamma-ray burst ever observed–so far away it may have occurred only about a billion years after the universe formed. If gamma-ray bursts are caused by dying super-massive stars, as some cosmologists think, this is the oldest (or youngest, from the perspective of the cosmos) such death so far observed. But as TMQ cautions about gamma-ray bursts, don’t assume they must be natural. Maybe they are the muzzle flashes of doomsday weapons. Maybe what GRB 080913 tells us is that shockingly soon after life began, so did the horror of combat.

This is a fun notion to mull over, but unlikely nevertheless. It’s inconceivable that any civilization could generate artificially the colossal energies associated with GRBs. Moreover, if GRBs were, in fact, telltale signs of distant alien warfare, astronomers would observe energy bursts anisotropically, or coming from a preferred direction in space…

…which is exactly what has been happening recently. In Antarctica, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory is designed to detect the ever-elusive neutrino–subatomic particles emitted from cataclysmic astrophysical phenomena like supernovae and GRBs. Although, for this experiment, they are considered “noise”, IceCube can also detect cosmic rays. Not only has IceCube been detecting an over-abundance of cosmic rays, lately, they have been observed anisotropically–coming from a preferred direction. Now THAT is the kind of observation that would hint at being muzzle flashes from distant alien warfare.

Realistically, the IceCube observations are certainly naturally occurring, and it’s only a matter of time until astronomers identify a source. The observations do raise an interesting point, though. Current SETI research is based largely upon the notion that the first signals we detect from an alien civilization will be radio signals–from an intentional attempt at contact or a byproduct of their internal communications like our radio and television. Weaponry almost certainly would emit far more detectable energy into space, though it may be more narrowly focused.

If we do detect alien intelligence, it may be more likely due to a BANG, not a whisper. Wouldn’t it be wonderfully ironic if the Vela satellites, designed to detect nuclear tests, discovered GRBs, and a detector like IceCube, designed to detect neutrinos from astrophysical events, initiated First Contact?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Apocalypse, Astronomy, Top Posts

Comments (30)

  1. Nemesis

    “Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station! “

  2. Paging Dr Occam . . . Dr Occam?

  3. Chris Winter

    Interesting article. I would take issue with one statement:

    It’s inconceivable that any civilization could generate artificially the colossal energies associated with GRBs.

    I think you underestimate the potential of accumulators and narrow pulse widths. Consider a high-powered laser like the National Ignition Facility. This will produce beams of immense power, but only in brief pulses lasting nanoseconds.

    I’m not saying I think GRBs may be the result of battles among BEMs. I don’t; I think they are completely natural. But I also don’t think we today can truly understand the limits of far-future engineering.

    Oh, yes — the NIF. Find some information here:

  4. Tassadar

    These GRBs are actually the result of my Protoss civilization engaging in eternal warfare against our arch-nemesis the Overmind and its Zerg.


  5. Belly Chick

    I’m with Chris Winter. It is colossally idiotic to state that anything about an unknown, distant civilization is inconceivable. However, anytime someone writes something is inconceivable, the reader should infer that the author is rather closed minded.

  6. Chris

    Zerg lol is that real or it from toy story

  7. Professor Fontleroy

    Surely if Ice Cube were to initiate First Contact, this would lead to an intergalactic “East-Coast/West-Coast” rap turf war that will inevitably end in a drive by on Planet Earth as a whole.

    I don’t like where this is going. Remember Tupac.

  8. Queen of Blades

    Auir is mine Tassadar, and soon not even Shakuras will be safe!



  9. Aberosh1819

    ” It’s inconceivable that any civilization could generate artificially the colossal energies associated with GRBs.”

    I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

  10. mcgatman

    To do this a civilization would have to be evolved into beings of pure energy, as far beyond us as we are beyond the amoeba

  11. Jeff

    I don’t think the ETs with galaxy-destroying energy weapons are the ones we should be searching for and attempting to contact, do you? This is why scientists should never be allowed to make policy decisions whether it’s space exploration or climate change. Just gather your data like good little nerds and let the people with common sense run things.

  12. Raynor

    This is Jimmy. I thought you died in the Battle of Aiur, Tassadar. I’d bet my britches you’re a fake.

  13. Fetish

    My favorite theory is from the book Manifold: Space (or Time?) by Stephen Baxter – GRB’s are natural, but aliens engaged in advanced interstellar war can cause them directly.

  14. MtnCaddy

    Curses on you, Tassadar!
    I took Overmind/Zerg and the points.

  15. Yatz

    I’m a big fan of TMQ’s views on football, science, politics and cheerleaders, but I think he’s talking thru his… err… very wrong on this subject. While it’s not inconcivable that a highly developed civilization will develop the means to produce this galactic-scale armagedon weapon, the idea that it will be developed – and used! – by millions of civilizations (this has probably been going on for 3 billions years, right?) – well, that’s just ludicrious.

  16. Vashra

    “Wouldn’t it be wonderfully ironic if the Vela satellites, designed to detect nuclear tests, discovered GRBs, and a detector like IceCube, designed to detect neutrinos from astrophysical events, initiated First Contact?”

    Yeah….because what we really need is First Contact with a species that can and will use GRBs as a weapon.

    I’m thinking that’s more properly called LAST Contact lol.

  17. PavePusher


    Someone hasn’t read their Niven or Baxter….

  18. Yo

    “10. Aberosh1819 Says:
    I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

    Exactly what came to my mind too. Nice.

    Though since we are talking about aliens with GRB tech-weapons… They should remember.

    “Never get involved with a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

  19. Fantastic article, but it would not be wonderfully ironic if the Vela satellites made first contact. If they’re contacting the gamma ray weapon holders, that’ll be extermination time for homo sapiens. Wonderfully brutal.

  20. Reminds me of the “Dawn War” from Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space trilogy.

  21. Brian Too

    One can only speculate upon the capabilities of a Kardashev Type III or IV civilization.

    However doesn’t it seem improbable that the number of GRB’s detected would be associated with a conflict? Especially considering that the GRB’s are directional and more-or-less all-sky events? How many are we not detecting because they aren’t pointed at us?

  22. Bryan

    “Wouldn’t it be wonderfully ironic if ”

    -An ESPN correspondent came up with the correct answer before the egg-heads even considered it !?!

  23. Josh K

    “I’m a big fan of TMQ’s views on football, science, politics and cheerleaders, but I think he’s talking thru his… err… very wrong on this subject. ”

    If you’re a big fan of TMQ, perhaps you’ve noticed that his column is rife with satire and humor? The chances that these bursts really are muzzle flashes from distant alien doomsday weapons is far greater than the chances that TMQ is being serious.

  24. amphiox

    I am presuming that it would take less energy to manipulate a natural GRB into “firing” at a time and direction of one’s choosing than it would take to generate and focus that level of energy from “scratch”.

    But then we shouldn’t necessarily assume that such energy outlays would only have application as weapons and nothing else. One could conceive of a KIII using GRB’s as part of an intergalactic SETI program to search for other KIII’s in distant galaxies, or a KIV using them as internal communication beacons….

  25. amphiox

    One drawback of weaponizing GRB’s though, is the fact that there are always two beams going in opposite directions. Aiming down line-of-sight might be tricky (imagine using artillery in warfare if the laws of physics dictated that you had to always fire a second shell backwards, every time).

    I suppose it might be good for two front wars….

  26. Reality

    Or maybe we have once again overestimated what we know of the universe around us.
    Most models of what causes a gamma ray burst were developed prior to understanding that gamma ray bursts occur in each and every thunderstorm on this planet.
    Science has always been slow to admit when wrong.

    But let’s not let that stop us from acting as if theory is fact.

  27. jimoutofthebox

    Why do the high energy cosmic rays have to come from weapons. Could we be detecting energy from some type of advanced rocket?


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