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The Question

(Submitted May 21, 1998)

Is there a possibility that a nearby star could go supernova and destroy the earth? Or have other bad effects on us?

The Answer

To destroy the Earth itself, the Sun will have to go supernova (which it never will).

If you are talking about the life on Earth, then there is a detailed calculation of the risks due to a nearby supernova on the web:

http://stupendous.rit.edu/richmond/answers/snrisks.txt

The author concludes that a supernova has to be within 10 parsecs (30 light years) or so to be dangerous to life on Earth. This is because the atmosphere shields us from most dangerous radiations. Astronauts in orbit may be in danger if a supernova is within 1000 parsecs or so.

No stars currently within 20 parsecs will go supernova within the next few million years.

There are some indirect effects, though, which are harder to evaluate: the possible effects on the Earth ozone layer is listed in the article above. Additionally, according to one calculation, the neutrino flux from a nearby supernova might heat up the Sun.

Best wishes,

Koji Mukai & Eric Christian
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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