Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Cosmic Radiation Story

  1. Apr 5, 2013 #1
    Hi All - I am an as yet unpublished writer who is working up a science fiction story. I should qualify that by saying that the story I have in mind, is more like a 'science drama' than science fiction, per se, because it doesn't involve monstrous creatures from space, interstellar travel, and the like.

    However one thing it does involve is a very large gamma-ray burst, something similar to that described in this BBC article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21082617

    So, without giving away what this aspect of the story actually does, I want to explore a few ideas about this kind of phenomenon. One thing I want to say in this story, is that the burst hits Earth so hard that it fries every single radio-telescopic device that is pointing in its direction at the time it hits. As a result, it turns out to be extremely difficult to say much about what it actually was. Practically no data turns out to have been gathered about the event, because all of the instruments that might have captured that information had their dials blown off, so to speak.

    I am also exploring the idea that one observatory did manage to capture at least some information about what happened, because it was pointed at an oblique angle to the band of radiation at the time. So it at least captured some information about the wavelength of the energy and the direction it came from.

    Are these suggestions plausible? Not the kind of thing that any experienced physicist would immediately say 'well that could never happen'?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 6, 2013 #2


    User Avatar
    2017 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    Our atmosphere is a good shield against gamma radiation, I don't think the surface would get problems. As a result, gamma ray telescopes are in space. I don't know how much intensity you need to kill gamma ray observatories.

    If half of the satellites in low earth orbits suddenly fail (the other half is shielded by earth), it would be possible to find the direction just based on the pattern of failed satellites ;). The energy can be reconstructed from the analysis of radioactive isotopes produced in the atmosphere.
  4. Apr 6, 2013 #3
    It would still be possible to tell when the burst hit, so it would be easy to tell where the burst came from via triangulation. Otherwise it sounds good.

    There was a gamma ray burst that noticeably ionized the Earth's atmosphere. It didn't damage the satellites, but did cause them to go into an emergency shutdown mode.
  5. Apr 6, 2013 #4
    Thanks! That's encouraging. I guess I don't want to fall into the trap of making it sound *too* plausible. It's a story after all. I appreciate the replies. Might have more questions as the story develops.
  6. Apr 6, 2013 #5
    Does this have to be 'gamma-rays'? There doesn't seem to be any particular reason why it has to be a particular frequency or type of radiation, I would have thought. It might be a broad-spectrum burst of radiation. That would make it more interesting.

    The event also played havoc with the internet and with mobile phone networks, in the zone which was most exposed (mainly the Eurozone, Middle East and Africa). The Internet's 'root servers' were unaffected, as they are designed to withstand nuclear radiation, however many regional data centres and a great number of Internet Service Providers suffered catastrophic server damage, resulting in network disruptions and an indeterminable amount of data loss. For months after services remain sporadic in the affected zones with a number of strange anomalies being reported.
  7. Apr 7, 2013 #6
    Just a few questions that I had almost immediately after reading your description.
    1) Why were all the radio telescopes, except for one, pointed in the same direction?
    -It seems to me that a lot more than one telescope would be aimed at an oblique angle.
    -There are some radio telescopes that are fixed at an angle which is more or less up from the ground. However, the earth is round. There are radio telescopes all over the earth. The earth is round. So it seems to me that that there would be quite a few survivors among those telescopes with a fixed position.

    2) What happened to ordinary radio communication?
    -Car radios. TV. Cell phones.
    -Why would radio telescopes be selectively fried?

    3) Were all satellite communication fried?

    4) Was there a light signal?
    -If the pulse that destroyed the telescope was sufficiently broad band, then it would have to include visible light.
    -High frequency radiation would cause the atoms in the upper atmosphere to photoluminesce.

    5) Was there an IR and UV signal to go along with those radio waves?

    6) What about biological eyes?

    7) What about the electroreception?
    -Many aquatic animals have electroreception which would be very sensitive to low frequency EM waves.
    -Sharks, electric eels, knife fish, playpus, and others would sense a pulse that included very low frequencies.

    8) What was the polarization of the EM waves from this event?
    -Some radio equipment would select certain polarizations, not just direction.
    -Perhaps the EM signal was unpolarized.
  8. Apr 7, 2013 #7
    Good questions, thanks.

    The scenario is, only those telescopes that were pointing in that direction were damaged, but that meant that there was not a lot of information about the actual event, because the other devices didn't capture much of it, because they were pointing away from it. In other words, all the devices that might have captured a lot of data about the event, were the ones that were damaged. It is important to the story that there is a element of mystery as to what happened. Kind of a very large-scale WTF, if you can see what I mean.

    The scenario is that there is a lot of damage to all kinds of mico-circtuitry including computers and so on.

    The biological effects are something else again. As nothing like this has actually happened, I think I can afford to be speculative about that aspect of it. But it is part of the story that in the aftermath, there is a lot of damage and in fact chaos.

    (By the way it is really interesting that the ad at the top of this page as I write this post is for 'radiation shielding'...you gotta love Google Adwords....)
  9. Apr 10, 2013 #8
    1) Didn't anyone have a fuse?

    2) Couldn't a telescope just blow a fuse?

    3) Couldn't a telescope aimed in an oblique direction pick up a stray reflection from a pulse, getting information that way?

    Some information could be extracted by the process of elimination.

    A general direction can be estimated by analyzing the telescopes that weren't damaged. If a telescope wasn't damaged, than obviously the pulse couldn't come from the direction it was pointing.

    A wavelength of radio pulse could be estimated by determining the size of antennae which weren't damage. Figure that the antennae coming closest to the average wavelength of the pulse would be fried.

    It sounds like you want a means of eliminating intermediate telescopes. Telescopes that weren't destroyed or even damaged, but could not gather the full information. For instance, the circuitry can be "saturated" rather than destroyed.

    I am not sure that radio telescopes have such a narrow field of view that there wouldn't be intermediate telescopes. I already mentioned the fuse problem.
  10. Apr 10, 2013 #9


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    A few problems with the scenario, that is if you was to be reasonably scientifically factual.

    1) Earth based radio telescopes dont do gamma ray studies because the earth's atmosphere is almost opaque to gamma rays. Those that do make it to any depth into the atmosphere generally disintergrate on collision with atmospheric particles and commonly form cosmic rays as a secondary particle.

    2) So the ground based radio telescopes are used in low MHz to IR part of the spectrum and are not going to focus any gamma rays that may happen to hit the dish surface.

    3) the R.scope's receiver equipment isnt even going to respond to the freq of the gamma rays. If any damage is done to the electonics ( and this would include ALL electronics ... scientific, commercial, domestic) it would be by the direct penetration of the housings of those pieces of electronics

    4) and if there were enough gamma rays actually making it to the Earths surface to do that sort or damage, then god help the biology of the planet which would be much more susceptable to the effects.


    the field of view (beamwidth) of a radio telescope is a function of the freq of use and the size of the dish that is.... as you increase the diameter of the dish the beamwidth narrows, conversely, for a fixed size dish diameter, as you increase the freq of interest, the beamwidth again narrows.

    as an example ... my 1 metre (3 ft) dish at 24 GHz has a 1/2 (-3dB) power beamwidth of about 6 degrees ( 3 degrees either side of the centreline. Then consider the very narrow beamwidth of a 33m (100ft) dish :)

    just some thoughts :)

  11. Apr 10, 2013 #10
    Interesting. Food for thought. The question is, is there any reason why the phenomena, like the one I mentioned in the OP, are gamma-ray bursts, in particular? I mean, there could be bursts of radiation that was not specifically of that type of energy, couldn't there?

    Indeed! That is exactly the scenario I'm imagining - some information can be retreived and some inferred, but with much room for doubt.
  12. Apr 11, 2013 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    it doesnt matter where an optical or radio telescope is pointing, neither of them are going to respond to gamma rays for the reasons I stated in my last post ( about a radio telescope, but it applies to optical ones as well)
    But after all you are writing science fiction, and if you dont really care about science fact, then anything is possible in fiction :)

  13. Apr 11, 2013 #12
    well that's true but I am trying to avoid obvious bloopers.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook