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The Mighty Magnetars In Our Universe

By James Donahue

It was on March 5, 1979, that two Soviet satellites drifting in the outer bands of our solar system were hit by a powerful blast of unexpected gamma ray radiation. The readings on both of the probes jumped from 100 counts per second to over 200,000 counts.

The radiation blast then spread across our solar system at lightning speed, next hitting Helios 2, a NASA satellite orbiting the Sun. Next it hit the Pioneer Orbiter circling Venus, and finally the Earth was bathed in what has been described as the strongest wave of extra-solar gamma rays ever recorded.

The wave crossed our solar system that day at the speed of light, traveling much as a ripple in a pond after tossing a stone in the center.

So what was that blast of power? Where did it come from?

World astronomers calculated the direction of the source and traced it back to a distant star that went supernova around 3000 B.C. At the time it happened researchers considered it to have been a rare type of neutron star and dubbed it with the name “magnetar.” Since then, however, our solar system has been bathed by similar blasts of gamma radiation in 1998 and again in 2004. Thus it is believed that magnetar events are not rare at all.

So what is known about magnetars? Because of their extreme distance astronomers cannot provide a lot of information. They appear to be dying suns that collapse in on themselves but maintain a density so heavy that it is believed a thimbleful of its mass would weigh something like 100 million tons on Earth.

Some calculations suggest that the collapsed stars, estimated to be no more than 12 miles wide, generate temporary but powerful magnetic fields that raise general havoc with everything in the universe around them. We should feel very fortunate that we have none of these monster magetars hanging out anywhere near our solar system.

Indeed, if it ever happens, it also is estimated that the active life of a magnetar, while short in comparison to the life of stars, might last about 10,000 years. During this time the magnetar is busy emitting powerful gamma ray flares that reach far out into space.

To date, 13 different magnetars have been identified and named. They range from 20,000 to 50,000 light years away from Earth which is somewhat comforting.

What the discovery of magnetars tells us is that we are surrounded by a very dynamic and unstable universe that is in constant change and motion. It is putting on a constant light display for us to view through our powerful telescopes. And it is telling us that we are safely tucked away in a quiet solar system, positioned on the edge of a galaxy where life can live in relative safety and harmony. All we need do is be good stewards and care for the planet on which we live. She, like the rest of this amazing universe, is a part of the dynamic One from which each of us emerged.

It necessary that we remember this, have reverence for the Mother, and think of her as our ship in space. Without her remaining healthy, alive and vibrant, the human race cannot survive. And in spite of all of our theories about space travel and escaping someday to new frontiers in the stars, we really have no other place to go.