WR-104, a threat to Earth?


What is WR-104?

Mainly taken from wikipedia, with irrelevant parts taken out:

WR 104 is a Wolf-Rayet star located 8000 light years from Earth. It is a binary star with a class OB companion. The stars have an orbital period of 220 days and the interaction between their stellar winds produce a spiral “pinwheel” outflow pattern. WR 104′s rotational axis is aligned within 16° of Earth. This could have potential implications to the effects of WR 104′s eventual supernova, since these explosions often produce jets from their rotational poles. It is possible that WR 104 may even produce a gamma ray burst (GRB), though it is not possible to predict with certainty at this time.

WR-104 spiral WR-104 spiral moving

What is a WR star?

Wolf-Rayet stars (often referred to as WR stars) are evolved, massive stars (over 20 solar masses), and are losing their mass rapidly by means of a very strong stellar wind, with speeds up to 2000 km/s. Wolf-Rayet stars are a normal stage in the evolution of very massive stars, in which strong, broad emission lines of helium and nitrogen (“WN” sequence) or helium, carbon, and oxygen (“WC” sequence) are visible.

What’s the matter with WR-104

The problem with WR-104 is that it is possible for a Wolf-Rayet star to progress to a “collapsar” stage in its death throes: This is when the core of the star collapses to form a black hole, pulling in the surrounding material. This is thought to be the precursor of a long gamma-ray burst(GBR for the rest of the article). That ain’t really a problem itself, the real deal is that the Earth is in the sight of that star and a GBR could possibly be aimed at Earth. Consequences of a GBR hitting Earth are mainly related to global impacts on the biosphere and climate-change triggered by the large dose of radiation.

So the GBR would be pointing at us?

A GBR is not like a laser beam with a clear target. It’s true that the Earth is in the line of “possible” danger, but we have to take in consideration how wide is the GRB. WR 104′s rotational axis is aligned within 16° of Earth and a typical GBR is about 2-20° wide. So, we are not in the comfort zone, but Earth is not a clear target. Remember that we deal with such big distances (8,000 light years), so even 0.1° can make a huge difference in terms of distance. In space, close to Earth can be considered as thousands of kilometers, so we have to keep that in mind.

When will it explode?

I’m not going to lie here just to please people: We don’t know when it is going to explode. Peter Tuthill, professor at the University of Sydney have studied the case since the star was discovered in 2000 and suggest that the star will explode within the next few hundred thousand years. Here’s what he officially says:

The WC spectrum Wolf-Rayet component of the binary should explode sometime within the next few hundred thousand years. To an astronomer, this is the last known stable phase in the life of these massive stars, and it could go anytime. I know of no way to predict this more accurately. The other component, the supergiant O/B star, likely has a much longer fuse than this, and for the rest of this discussion I focus mainly on the WR component.

The WC spectrum analysis is the analysis of the star’s helium, carbon, and oxygen emission. By analyzing this spectrum, you can determine at what stage or phase the star is in. As Tuthill says, it’s the last known stable phase in the life of these massive stars and it could go anytime.

What if it explode?

Well, if it explode tomorrow, we’re safe. The star is 8,000 light years away from Earth and one light year is the distance the light would travel in one year, which is extremely far. So, with gamma rays also traveling at the speed of light, we are looking at 8,000 years for a GRB to hit us. We are safe on that point.

What if it already exploded?

The problem is that when we look at the stars we look back in time. If the star is 8,000 light years away from us, it means what we see now is what the star was looking like 8,000 years ago. So, if the star can explode at any time with the data we have and it’s 8,000 years old data, the star could have already exploded right? Yes, I’m not going to lie to you about that. This means if the star exploded 7,999 years ago, we would know next year. We would know in the case that the burst hit us and it’s very unlikely.

What are your thoughts?

Honestly, I will sleep tonight and you should do the same without worrying too much. Like Phil Plait from badastronomy.com said:

So if it’s less than 10,000 years from exploding and if it blows up as a GRB and if it’s aimed at us and if there isn’t much junk between us and it, then yeah, we may have a problem. But that’s an awful lot of ifs.

There’s way too much ifs to conclude on a theory. It could explode tomorrow, in two hundred thousand years or have already exploded. The GRB might hit Earth as it might not at all and there’s lot of stuff in that 8,000 light years distance that could interfere. The theory is not strong enough to clearly say we are 100% safe and it’s ain’t defined enough to conclude on something. There’s way too much things to worry about in this life, don’t worry about that. Trust me WR-104 is one of the star we know of but there are possibly other stars that could pose a threat to Earth we are just not aware of. I’d say worry about your everyday life, not what’s happening 8,000 years away.

So, is it debunked and we’re safe?

It’s not debunked like the 2012 theory is. I feel confident enough to say you won’t see that GBR in your lifetime, but space is very complex and we have a lot of surprises ahead of us. It’s not worth to worry about WR-104, but it’s a nice thing to be aware of.

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37 Responses to “WR-104, a threat to Earth?”

  1. Valeriya

    Oh, shit.
    This is sort of scary.

    Did you e-mail Peter Tuthill?
    I think you should. (Sorry for saying this 100 times).
    Like when the research is done, and if we would have some sort of warming before the ray hit us.

  2. Ben

    I don’t think it is scary actually…There’s so many factors that needs to be put together for something bad to happen that there’s not much chance for you to see this in your lifetime!

    I haven’t emailed Peter about it as he provides quite good informations on his website…

  3. Valeriya

    I see, Ben. But if it was coming would we get any type of a warning? And also I was thinking. Would we be safe indoors? And again, the estimates of damage on Tuthill’s and others websites are for a full fledged gamma ray, right?

  4. Valeriya

    Also, Ben,
    I wanted to ask you if NASA has said that the 2012 thing won’t happen?

  5. craig tonkin

    I accept all the science here and don’t feel remotely scared by the prospect of a star thats 8000 LY away exploding. Which brings me to my point: Surely if the star is 8000 LY away then any gamma radiation from a supernova would be very dissapated by the time it reached our solar system. And what about the solar wind of our own Sun? Wouldn’t our Sun’s solar winds potentially push any incoming radiation away from the centre of our system? And what of our own atmosphere and magnetic field? Aren’t we already bombarded by gamma rays from our Sun? Aren’t all the nasty rays deflected by the atmosphere? Why would rays coming from 8000 LYs away be any more of a threat than those from our nearest star?
    Random thoughts really.

  6. Valeriya

    Where’s Ben?
    I also wanted to add.
    Hollywood’s been making all sorts of thrillers involving the end of the world, and there’s a movie called 2012 that’s set to be released in 2009.

    Do you think they’re trying to tell us something?
    God, I wish NASA would already post a statement about it not being true.

  7. Ben

    NASA hasn’t commented on 2012 because they don’t care about it. They have better things to do and there’s no point for them to make a public statement for something that’s not a threaté

    As for Hollywood, money is driving Hollywood. If there’s a buck to make, they’ll make a movie. Think about all the end of the world movies…

  8. Valeriya

    So you’re saying that they’re just making these movies to scare people into watching them?
    I seriously can’t imagine the world ending, it scares the SHIT out of me. But then I look at like babies and think they’re so lucky they don’t worry about this stuff.

    What about the war and nuclear weapons?

  9. craig tonkin

    Also, I doubt that movie about 2012 will get made. Its being put up by the guys that did ’10,000BC’ which has tanked at the box office. So I doubt their next project will get the greenlight they’d hoped for.

    Besides, Hollywood has pumped out plenty of Doomsday films, none of which had any basis in fact/truth/reality. I’m more excitred about the next 2 Transformers movies, the last of which will most likely be out in 2012. Now there’s a concept I wish was reality!

  10. Ben

    I didn’t know that about the 2012 movie Craig…In fact I haven’t searched much about it! And you’re right when you say none of the doomsday films have any basis in fact/truth/reality.

    Valeriya, I think you should stop worrying about these things and also about 2008, war and nuclear weapons. Nothing is sure in this world and we can’t predict tomorrow. But I don’t see anything like a nuclear war in 2008, I don’t think you should worry! ;)

  11. Valeriya

    Lol. (:
    Thanks Ben.

    I want to see that too!
    I think Shia Lebeouf is a-m-a-z-i-n-g.

    and i want to see seventeen again.

  12. craig tonkin

    I’d much rather be living in 2008 than 1968 when WW3 was a real possibility.

    Even when we came close in ’62 with the Cuabn Missle Crisis, comman sense prevailed and war was averted. I have great faith in mankind to ultimately do the right thing. We may make many mistakes along the way but I think we’ll persevere as a race.

    And yeah, don’t stress on the whole doomsday thing. Those doom-merchants just want you to buy their books. Bastards

  13. Valeriya

    Ahh, Tuthill just e-mailed me. With very reassuring information as well.

    Now, just this Ronald Weinland guy scares me.
    I’ll e-mail my pastor about it.

  14. Anonymous


    Why talk to your pastor about doomsday? Surely he’ll just tow the Christian line that believes in the End Times? If you want reassurance that End Times Prophecy is a bunch of hokum then turn to Science!

  15. craig tonkin

    Sorry that last comment was from me. Forgot to add my details….

  16. Valeriya

    I know but this Weinland guy says that the economy of America will fall and their will be a really big terrorist attack.
    Hahha, no, my pastor has a little baby and a wife, so surely he wouldn’t agree.
    So craig, are you saying he’s a bunch of shit?
    surely america can’t fall that fast …

  17. Anonymous

    Oh and Tuthill said that we wouldn’t die, the climate would just be changed radically. It was a very very reassuring article.

  18. mike

    anyone can make a prediction about a countries economy failing(it happens throughout history)look at what year weinland made this “prediction” it was only a matter of time before americas economy fell, with outsourcing jobs and relying on foreign countries for fuel…anyone can see that, as far as a terrorist attack yeah there will be another one but these are the times we live in and have to deal with. the usa wont fall we’ll just hit hard times, prices will go up on everything to compensate but eventually it evens itself out. think the depression, but it will never get that bad.

  19. craig tonkin

    I think if you look at the known history of human civilisation, you’ll find that we actually live in very very good times. It is only recently that the World has started to think Globally. Sure economies rise and fall. That will always happen. Societies will face threats from those who wish to destroy them (terrorists) that’s been happening since before we crawled outta the swamps. We’ve spent the last hundred+ years pumping all sorts of crap into the atmosphere. It’ll take the next hundred years to get it right. And we will get it right.

    Every single generation of man has had a percentage of people who believe they live in the ‘End Times’. This is nothing new. You just gotta get things in perspective. People now live longer, healthier lives. Diseases are getting cures (cancer will be beat one day). Wars are localised. Communism is nearly dead, there’s lots of good shit going on. So lets focus on that for a change.

    And Valeriya, I wouldn’t be looking to religion to answer your questions. Religion is responsible for 90% of history’s problems. If you wanna be a part of the solution, ditch religion today and start living life on your terms.

    Peace out.

    • Henrique De Brito

      "I wouldn't be looking to religion to answer your questions. Religion is responsible for 90% of history's problems. If you wanna be a part of the solution, ditch religion today and start living life on your terms."
      That is the agreeable comment I have ever read

  20. Press to Digitate

    Exactly what about 2012 has ever been ‘debunked’?

    The dozen or so different, unrelated ancient civilizations that predicted an ‘end date’ to history on [what is on our calendar] December 21, 2012 didnt specify a ‘what’ or a ‘how’, only the ‘When’ of it. So how can it possibly be ‘debunked’?

    A WR-104 Gamma Ray Burst is the best candidate for a 2012 ‘Event’ for several reasons. Since the arrival of the gamma beam wavefront is the first indication of a WR104 GRB that we can instrument for, it is impossible to rule out the proposition that it has already happend.

    A lot of people cling to their ambient reality beyond all reason, as if to preserve it by faith alone. This is unbecoming of men of science. That the ancient Maya or Chinese or Hindus or other peoples we today consider primitive may have had some transcendent source of knwledge made available to them is incomprehensible to the 20th Century scientific rationalist. Fortunately, we are moving beyond that mindset, here in the 21st Century.

  21. Ben

    While I don’t necessarely agree with you, I do respect your opinion. I wouldn’t say the WR-104 is the best candidate for 2012. There’s no best candidate for 2012 because there’s nothing to rely on to make any predictions.
    Also, no ancient civilizations have predicted the “end date”. The maya never mentionned 2012 as the end of the world, in fact it was a great celebration for them to make it to the end of the great cycle.

  22. craig tonkin

    Ben, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to argue with those who cling to 2012 theory.

    Yeah the Mayans…..they were a smart bunch weren’t they? So smart they farmed themselves outta existence. Maybe they should’ve spent more time pondering sustainable farming methods and less time making bullshit calendars.

  23. Ben

    I know Craig, but it kind of piss me off to see all that disinformation going on!

  24. craig tonkin

    Yeah, since I started reading your blog I’ve done some browsing around on the whole 2012 thing. Without doubt its utter bullshit. It infuriates me that this kinda crud gets to see the light of day. What gets me is that no one can actually agree on how the World will end in 2012! Asteroid? Polar shift? Gamma Rays? Planet X? Alien Invasion?

    I’m just so sick of New Age Doom Saying Hippie Dumb-shits I wanna puke! Maybe I should lock myself in the cupboard till Jan 1 2013. That way I don’t have to put up all this crap for the next 4 years!

    • FUCK YOU

      HEY ASSHOLE JUST DONT USE THE INTERNET UNTIL 2013 YOU STUPID MOTHERFUCKER YOU GOOD FOR NOTHING PIECE OF SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  25. Mark

    I just wanted to say that I don’t think it’s fair to blame religion for so many problems. There are those extremists that cause problems with their rules and ideas that restrict thinking “outside of the box” but not all. There are those that are spiritual and knowledgable in science. There are even scientists that are Christians as well. I’m sure a lot of people will find some way to retaliate this, but I just wanted to state that sometimes science and religion go hand-in-hand and those who say it’s all science and no religion are as closed-minded as those who say it’s all religion and no science.

  26. Kyle Johnson

    Okay scientists, why in the blue hell do we need ANOTHER possible Earth threat leaked to the public? Especially when it would be affective in our life time?

  27. Daniel

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article a threat to Earth?, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  28. sidthecerilion

    craig… NOO dont lock yourself up in a cupboard… you should realize thats where the alien invasions are gunna start.. right there in the back where the packet noodles are!!! geeez, you need to wise up mate!!!


    I don't care 'bout no gotdanged GRB mmhhmm.
    (I wish)

  30. Rinona

    Dear Benoit:

    I have the complete season four "The Universe" and saw the episode on WR104 Gamma Ray Burst and how it is aiming straight at the earth.

    Since the earth travels around the sun 365 days for a complete cycle, how can WR104 hit the earth? Wouldn't it hit the sun first; sun explodes, earth tilts, knocking earth out of orbit and the end of earth within the Milky Way Galaxy, and what about the effects upon the Milky Way Galaxy?

    These things should be noted in the episode because its not like earth is just standing still waiting on a big hit. The sun would be the target; wouldn't it?

    Please explain as I find the WR104 theory very interesting, and I had a dream where the sun exploded, and the earth tilted and everything fell off the earth!



  31. fred johnson

    Don't worry if it happened and you were in the path of such a massive gamma ray burst you would be killed almost instantly and since it travel's at the speed of light, no warning is possible.

    Wonder how the religious explain away all the meteors, gamma ray bursts diseases and other ways everyone irrespective of religion or actions can be killed instantly without warning….


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