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12th June 2019

'Superflare' may threaten Earth in the next 100 years

A new study finds that stars like our own Sun can experience giant eruptions on timescales that are relatively frequent in astronomical terms.

Astronomers probing the edges of the Milky Way have, in recent years, observed some of the most brilliant pyrotechnic displays in the galaxy: superflares.

These events occur when stars, for reasons that scientists still don't understand, eject huge bursts of energy that can be seen from hundreds of light years away. Until recently, researchers assumed that such explosions occurred mostly on stars that, unlike Earth's, were young and active.

Now, new research shows with more confidence than ever before that superflares can occur on older, quieter stars like our own – albeit more rarely, or about once every 2,000–3,000 years.

The results should be a wake-up call for life on our planet, said Yuta Notsu, lead author of the study, which appears in The Astrophysical Journal.


superflare future


If a superflare erupted from the Sun, he said, Earth would likely sit in the path of a wave of high-energy radiation. Such a blast could disrupt electronics across the globe, causing widespread black outs and shorting out communication satellites in orbit.

"There is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so," said Notsu, a researcher in the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

Scientists first discovered this phenomenon from an unlikely source: the Kepler Space Telescope. The NASA spacecraft, launched in 2009, seeks out planets circling stars far from Earth. But it also found something odd about those stars themselves. In rare events, light from distant stars seemed to get suddenly and momentarily brighter. Researchers dubbed those humungous bursts of energy "superflares."


superflare future timeline
Credit: Casey Reed/NASA


Normal-sized flares are common on the Sun. But what the Kepler data was showing seemed to be much bigger – on the order of hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than the largest flare ever recorded with modern instruments on Earth. And that raised an obvious question: Could a superflare also occur on our own Sun?

"When our Sun was young, it was very active, because it rotated very fast and probably generated more powerful flares," said Notsu, also of the National Solar Observatory in Boulder. "But we didn't know if such large flares occur on the modern Sun with very low frequency."

To find out, Notsu and an international team of researchers turned to data from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and from the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. Over a series of studies, the group used those instruments to narrow down a list of superflares that had come from 43 stars resembling our Sun. The researchers then subjected those rare events to a rigorous statistical analysis.


superflare future timeline

Credit: Notsu, et al.


The bottom line: age matters. Based on the team's calculations, younger stars tend to produce the most superflares. But older stars like our Sun – now a respectable 4.6 billion years old – can still experience them, on timescales that are relatively frequent in astronomical terms.

"Young stars have superflares once every week or so," Notsu said. "For the Sun, it's once every few thousand years on average."

Notsu can't be sure when the next big solar light show is due to hit Earth. But he said that it's a matter of when, not if. Still, that could give humans time to prepare, protecting electronics on the ground and in orbit from radiation in space.

"If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora," Notsu said. "Now, it's a much bigger problem because of our electronics."


superflare future
Credit: National Space Weather Program (NSWP)


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