Supernova collisions with the heliosphere

Brian D. Fields, Themis Athanassiadou, Scott R. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Nearby supernova explosions - within a few tens of pc of the solar system - have become a subject of intense scrutiny, due to the discovery of live undersea 60Fe from an event 2.8 Myr ago. A key open question concerns the delivery of supernova ejecta to the Earth, in particular penetration of the heliosphere by the supernova remnant (SNR). We present the first systematic numerical hydrodynamical study of the interaction between a supernova blast and the solar wind. Our simulations explore dynamic pressure regimes that are factors > 10 above those in other studies of the heliosphere under exotic conditions, for supernovae exploding at a range of distances through different interstellar environments, and interacting with solar winds of varying strengths. Our results are qualitatively consistent with the structure of the contemporary heliosphere modeled by previous work, but compressed to within the inner solar system. We demonstrate that key characteristics of the resulting heliospheric structure follow simple scaling laws that can be understood in terms of pressure-balance arguments, and which are in agreement with previous work. Our models show that a 10 pc supernova event, incident on a solar-wind outflow with the mean observed properties, compresses the heliopause to just beyond 1 AU. We also demonstrate scenarios where the supernova remnant compresses the heliopause to within 1 AU, in which cases supernova material will be directly deposited on Earth. Since 8 pc marks the nominal "kill radius" for severe biosphere damage, any extinction-level events should have left terrestrial deposits of supernova debris. We conclude with a brief discussion of the effect of our approximations and the impact of additional physics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)549-562
Number of pages14
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2008


  • Astrobiology
  • Interplanetary medium
  • Solar wind
  • Supernovae: general

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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