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Powerful stellar explosions may have caused mass extinctions on Earth and could also have prevented life from appearing on other planets until 5 billion years ago—and then only in the outskirts of galaxies.

A gamma-ray burst (GRB) is an intense flash of radiation from a dying star that could damage or eliminate life on a planet light years away. A pair of astrophysicists has now analyzed the latest astronomical data to update previous estimates of the likelihood that a GRB affected life on Earth. They found that there’s a

60%

chance that a GRB caused an extinction-level event within the past billion years. Looking beyond Earth, the team found that life is more likely to appear in the outer regions of a galaxy, where GRBs are less common, and that GRBs may have made much of the Universe unfriendly to life until about 5 billion years ago.

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