Around 440 million years ago, the Earth saw one of several mass extinction events, and now some scientists believe that particular mass extinction could have been caused by a deadly blast of radiation from a passing cluster of dying stars. Great, that’s one more thing in the universe that could kill all of us without giving a shit.
In 2003, a team led by Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas in Lawrence suggested that a gamma-ray burst within a few thousand light years of Earth triggered a mass extinction 440 million years ago. But proof has been elusive. Because these bursts occur when a single star explodes or two stellar corpses merge, there is little left to identify the culprit.
Unless, of course, the gamma-ray burst occurred in a massive swarm of stars called a globular cluster, which hosts many pairs of dead stars that might merge, says Wilfried Domainko of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. Based on the number of star clusters in the Milky Way and the rate of gamma-ray bursts in them, Domainko calculates one probably exploded within striking distance of Earth at least once in the past billion years (arxiv.org/abs/1112.1792).
The European Space Agency’s Gaia star-mapper, expected to launch in 2013, could track the guilty cluster down. Gaia will pinpoint the position and speed of such clusters, so we can see if any coincide with extinctions.