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Earlier this year, a team of researchers at the University of Kansas came up with an out-of-this-world explanation for the phenomenon of mass extinctions on Earth that hinges upon the fact that stars move through space and sometimes rush headlong through galaxies, or approach closely enough to cause a brief cosmic tryst
"Our solar system has a shock wave around it, and it produces a good quantity of the cosmic rays that hit the Earth. Why shouldn't the galaxy have a shock wave, too?" Melott asks.
The galactic bow shock is only present on the north side of the Milky Way's galactic plane, because that is the side facing the Virgo Cluster as it moves through space, and it would cause superheated gas and cosmic rays to stream behind it, the researchers say. Normally, our galaxy's magnetic field shields our solar system from this "galactic wind." But every 64 million years, the solar system's cyclical travels take it above the galactic plane.
"When we emerge out of the disk, we have less protection, so we become exposed to many more cosmic rays," Melott has said.
The boost in cosmic-ray exposure may have a direct effect on Earth's organisms, according to paleontologist Bruce Lieberman. The radiation would lead to higher rates of genetic mutations in organisms or interfere with their ability to repair DNA damage. In this way, the process could lead to new species while killing off others.