Sun could unleash violent 'superflare' in the next century, researchers warn

Katie Ramirez
June 13, 2019

Young and active stars are often behind the biggest eruptions, with researchers recently identifying a star that emitted a turbocharged flare some 10 billion times more energetic than those typically seen bursting from the Sun, according to Astronomy magazine.

Superflares are monstrous bursts of charged particles, solar energy and cosmic radiation from the surface of a star.

"When our sun was young, it was very active because it rotated very fast and probably generated more powerful flares", Notsu said.

It is hard to anticipate the events which take place on the sun daily, which means that estimating the date when a superflare will occur is nearly impossible. These solar flares have the potential to wipe out entire satellite networks, short out communications and disrupt power grids around the globe.

"Our study shows that superflares are rare events", says Notsu.

To investigate, Dr Notsu and his colleagues from Japan, the U.S. and the Netherlands studied superflares detected from 43 Sun-like stars using data from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and New Mexico's Apache Point Observatory.

The spacecraft launched in 2009, and its goal was to seek out planets circling stars that are very far from Earth. In rare events, the light from distant stars seemed to get suddenly, and momentarily, brighter.

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Be that as it may, Notsu says the more we learn about superflares, the more we realise that while they might be more common on younger stars, Sun-like stars are definitely not precluded from this powerful, and potentially very unsafe form of stellar phenomena.

The new data shows that this isn't entirely true, and while superflares are indeed less common in mature stars, they're more frequent than previously thought. Superflares on this scale are an incredibly rare event, occurring once every few thousand years.

"Young stars have superflares once every week or so", said Yuta Notsu, a visiting researcher at CU Boulder.

And that raised an obvious question: Could a superflare also occur on our own sun? Unfortunately, there's not much we can do beyond hoping that if a superflare does occur, Earth isn't in its path.

To find out, researchers turned to data from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and from the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

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.

Dr Notsu hopes that the warning might give humanity time to prepare by developing shielding to protect electronics on the ground and in orbit from these bursts of stellar radiation. "People may have seen a large aurora", Notsu said in a statement, referring to the dancing Northern Lights or Southern Lights produced by solar particles interacting with molecules of Earth's atmosphere. "Now, it's a much bigger problem because of our electronics".

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