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

James Marshall
June 12, 2019

It's the coolest and smallest star that scientists have observed emitting a rare white-light superflare - a sudden eruption of magnetic energy that unleashes huge quantities of radiation, according to a statement from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

In a new analysis of superflare events observed by the Kepler space telescope, the researchers report that superflares can indeed be produced by Sun-like stars, albeit much less frequently than by younger, more magnetically active stars.

Given this, he explained, even though superflares are rare events for stars like our Sun, 'there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so'.

'For the Sun, it's once every few thousand years on average'.

Our sun is a middle-aged star, but it is still able to release powerful solar flames. New research shows that such eruptions can occur on stars as old and as inactive as our sun. Such an event could cause havoc for satellite communications and power grids on Earth.

Scientists from University of Colorado (CU) Boulder in the U.S. have found that superflares can occur on older, quieter stars like our own - albeit more rarely, or about once every few thousand years.

The shocking revelation, according to one of the researchers, is a "wake up call" for everyone on the planet.

A group of astronomers happened upon this unusual star during a survey of surrounding stars, when the superflare made it 10,000 times brighter than usual, according to the statement.

If a superflare erupted from the sun, he said, Earth would likely sit in the path of a wave of high-energy radiation.

Superflares erupted from the Sun could disrupt electronics across the Earth, causing widespread black outs and shorting out communication satellites in orbit, scientists warn.

Younger stars produce the most superflares, the researchers found. They noticed that, at times, the light from some distant stars, hundreds of light-years away, would rapidly get brighter for a relatively short period of time.

Notsu explained that normal-sized flares are common on the sun.

The confirmation that slowly rotating, Sun-like stars can still throw out powerful superflares is surely intriguing, but it's also a bit nerve-wracking.

"Young stars have superflares once every week or so", said Yuta Notsu, first author of a paper discussing the findings, published in The Astrophysical Journal, and a boffin working in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at UC Boulder.

"But we didn't know if such large flares occur on the modern Sun with very low frequency".

However, the study revealed that older stars like our Sun - which is now somewhere around its 4.6 billionth birthday - can still produce superflares as well.

The bottom line: age matters.

Younger stars, Dr Notsu said, appear to eject superflares "once every week or so".

Scientists dubbed these events "superflares" - and, as it remains unclear exactly how they are triggered, have wondered whether they ever take place on our local star, the Sun.

Notsu can't be sure when the next big solar light show is due to hit Earth.

To prepare ourselves for what may be an inevitable strike by a superflare, Notsu says we need to work on protecting our electronics by investing in radiation shielding and backup systems.

"If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem".

Auroras associated with this event could be seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii, telegraph system worldwide went haywire, and ice core records from Greenland indicate that the Earth's protective ozone layer was damaged by the energetic particles from the solar storm. "Now, it's a much bigger problem because of our electronics".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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