Could our Sun produce superflares?

Researchers have been comparing the flares released by our Sun with those released by a star elsewhere in the Milky Way, indicating it is possible the Sun has the potential to release superflares that would be devastating for life on Earth.

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Two artist's impressions show the Sun (left) and what the Sun might look like if it were to produce a superflare (right)
Credit: University of Warwick/Ronald Warmington

Our Sun has demonstrated the potential to produce flares thousands of times more powerful than ever recorded, which would be catastrophic for life on Earth, according to new research.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has observed a stellar superflare produced by binary star KIC9655129, which is found in our own Galaxy, enabling researchers at Warwick University to detect similarities between it and our Sun’s solar flares.

This led the team to determine that the underlying physics of the two flares might be the same, suggesting the Sun could also produce a superflare.

Solar flares can produce energy equivalent to a 100 million megaton bomb, but a superflare from our Sun could produce energy equivalent to a 100 billion megaton bombs, the team behind the research has said.

A superflare has never been detected emanating from the Sun, but the team suggested that if it did, it could knock out Earth’s communications and energy systems.

Solar flares usually consist of a series of regularly occurring pulses, which resemble waves. The properties of these wavelengths are dependent on the properties of the star producing the flare. Sometimes the flares contain multiple waves superimposed on top of one another, which correlate to the physical properties of superflares.

Stars outside our Solar System have been observed producing these superflares, but it remains to be determined whether the same physical processes involved in producing superflares are involved in producing regular solar flares.

Lead author Chloë Pugh says: “If the Sun were to produce a superflare it would be disastrous for life on Earth; our GPS and radio communication systems could be severely disrupted and there could be large scale power blackouts as a result of strong electrical currents being induced in power grids.

“Fortunately the conditions needed for a superflare are extremely unlikely to occur on the Sun, based on previous observations of solar activity.”

The team based their results on observations of wave patterns in the light curve of a flare emanating from KIC9655129, which is known to produce superflares. When a flare occurs, astronomers can detect an increase in intensity that is then followed by a decline. Sometimes during this decline phase there are ‘quasi-periodic pulsations’ (QPPs) in solar intensity.

The team were able to detect two periods of these pulses occurring following the observed flare and produced a model that simulated both the decay phase and the two periods of intensity. The two periods were analysed and found to be most likely independent.

The fact that these two periods were independent, the team says, suggests that the QPPs were caused by what are known as ‘magnetohydrodynamic oscillations’, which are frequently observed in solar flares.

This suggests that the same physical processes are at play in solar flares and superflares, indicating that the Sun could potentially be able to produce the superflares that would be so dangerous for life on Earth.


 

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