You know what the universe is? A total dick, that's what.
You know what else it is? A giant microwave oven.
If you tune your TV set between channels, part of the "snow" that you see on the screen is background noise caused by cosmic radiation. You can also hear this phenomenon as a low, humming hiss behind all other noise. It was first found when two lab rats were trying to calibrate a giant hearing horn yet kept getting this strange farty sound no matter how they filtered the results. Of course, that's just the background radiation. There are also plenty of other, more lethal types bombarding us from space at all times.
Via Wiki Commons
This is called a horn antenna. Scientists use it to hear just how screwed we are.
How It Will Get Us:
While cosmic rays aren't able to deliver microwaves powerful enough to do what an actual microwave oven does (i.e., explode us like hot dogs), other kinds of rays out there are more than capable of harming our machinery and turning us into walking tumor farms. The only thing protecting us is our atmosphere, especially the ozone layer. You know, the ozone layer? That thing we were all going to save back in the 90s and then completely forgot about?
Hey, is it cool to start spraying CFCs again? We've got like, a billion cans out back we still need to use.
OK! So now there's harmful radiation leaking in every day. And it gets worse the higher up you go in the atmosphere. Do you fly often? Say "hi" to cosmic radiation! Pilot or stewardess? There's an actual measuring system for determining exactly how well-done space wants your ass.
So at least you know one thing is getting cooked up there.
And what about the cosmic microwave background? That stuff just lurking in the snow of our televisions and the background hiss of our audio equipment? Well, it's not going to do much more than loiter, but that doesn't mean it can't still get to us. For instance, if you happen to have a stroke, you'd better hope the paramedics aren't carrying an old-model defibrillator. Because if they are, cosmic microwaves may have already drained the battery, right when you need it most. Maybe that's not the most spectacular way to go out, but it is the most damning and direct evidence that the universe wants you, specifically, as dead as possible, and that it is constantly trying all sorts of things to make that beautiful dream a reality.
"Damn you, space. Damn you to hell."
While cosmic rays can be harmful and even fatal, they're stopped just short of eradicating all life on Earth by our built-in defense system. This shield has given us just enough time, as a species, to develop and understand the concept of smugness, before the universe brings out the big guns.
Enter the gamma ray burst.
Or Intergalactic Hadouken.
The GRB is nothing less than a Death Star-style destruct-o-beam, but on a cosmic scale. It's caused by a particularly massive star collapsing into a black hole, which initiates a supernova explosion, which in turn emits twin energy flares in opposite directions. Each of these flares has energy levels that make even the supernovas that birthed them blush. A typical burst releases as much energy in a few seconds as our sun will in its entire 10 billion-year lifetime.
Maybe if the sun would apply itself a little more ...
How They Will Get Us:
If one happens in our galaxy -- basically anywhere in our galaxy -- it could effectively end us by boiling away most of the ozone layer and, following up for a two-hit combo, bombarding the Earth with insane amounts of UV radiation. Luckily, our current measuring equipment says these happen relatively rarely in the universe:
Just once a day.
The universe fires off drunken ion cannon shots as often as you poop.
Magnetars are a type of neutron star, and they're what's left when a massive-enough star expends itself in a supernova. They're composed of an ultrathick material called neutronium, a thimbleful of which weighs approximately 100 million tons. Magnetars have powerful magnetic fields that emit huge amounts of high-energy electromagnetic radiation (such as X-rays and gamma rays) as they decay. So basically, a magnetar is an omnidirectional gamma ray burst combined with a cosmic-level EMP.
Come on, universe. At this point, you're just bringing a tank to a knife fight.
It's actually more like spinning around in the Orphanage District and firing a shotgun wildly into the air.
How They Will Get Us:
There are no magnetars in our immediate vicinity, but the radiation from even the distant ones could very well damage the Earth. In fact, minor blasts already have: In 1979, a bunch of Soviet spaceships, idling after a satellite drop, were saturated with extreme magnetar radiation. The pulse then went on to screw up three Department of Defense satellites, and we only noticed the damn thing coming when it was already gone. In 2004, another magnetar blast hit. This one was so intense it actually affected our ionosphere. Again, we didn't see it coming until it was too late to do much more than slap at each other in panic. And we certainly didn't expect it to be nearly as powerful as it was. That blast came from 50,000 light-years away; the nearest-radiation emitting magnetar to us is 9,000 light-years away.
What can you say to that, except "shitbricks" or "I've always loved you, Gary"?
Oh, and it should go without saying at this point, but we find more magnetars all the damn time. We guess that's the main thing you should be taking away from this article: There are so very many dramatic ways that vast, incomprehensible galactic phenomena can kill you, that every single day that you go unmurdered by space is a miracle.
"Let's do it till space melts our faces."
Pauli Poisuo is a freelance writer.
And see how to properly flip the universe the bird in our bestselling book.
If that wasn't bad enough, Mother Nature is trying to off you also. See how in 5 Bizarre Ways the Weather Can Kill You Without Warning and The 6 Cutest Animals That Can Still Destroy You.
And stop by Linkstorm to see how our peace negotiations with Galactus are going.
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