Science

Rare 'superflares' from Sun could disrupt Earth's communications

Rare 'superflares' from Sun could disrupt Earth's communications”

It was previously thought that older stars like our Sun - a healthy 4.6 billion years old - didn't really have the power to eject superflares, however a group of eggheads led by the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States this week showed this isn't the case. Astronomers assumed that this meant stars like the Sun have either grown out of their superflare phase or that such events were so rare that it wasn't really worth worrying about.

A superflare is a massive burst of charged particles, solar energy and cosmic radiation from the surface of a star. New research shows that such eruptions can occur on stars as old and as inactive as our sun.

It was long thought that these superflares only took place on young and active stars and that our sun-which is much older-would not be capable of producing them.

'Young stars have superflares once every week or so, ' Dr Notsu said.

"The number of old, slowly rotating Sun-like superflare stars [observed] are now very small, and the current statistical discussions are not enough".

Dr Notsu, a visiting researcher at CU Boulder, said: "Our study shows that superflares are rare events".

If the Sun emitted a superflare, the resulting blast of high-energy radiation hitting the earth would disrupt electronics across the globe, cause widespread blackouts and short out communications satellites in orbit. The study says that while superflares are rare, the Earth could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so. "But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so".

The spacecraft launched in 2009, and its goal was to seek out planets circling stars that are very far from Earth. But it also found something odd about those stars themselves.

Our sun is a middle-aged star, but it is still able to release powerful solar flames. However, 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. However, Sun-like stars were still seen producing hazardous superflares.

"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. "The fact that we've observed this incredibly low mass star, where the chromosphere should be nearly at its weakest, but we have a white-light flare occurring shows that strong magnetic activity can still persist down to this level".

To understand more, Notsu's team ran new spectroscopic observations with Kepler data, also utilising data from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

"The activity of low mass stars decreases as you go to lower and lower masses, and we expect the chromosphere (a region of the star which support flares) to get cooler or weaker", comments lead author of the new study James Jackman, a PhD student in the University of Warwick's Department of Physics. Our sun reached the middle of its life, and it has an age of 4.6 billion years.



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