Science

Astronomers spy record eruption on young sun-like star

Astronomers may have detected, for the first time, an erupting sun-like star with a giant outburst 10 times larger than anything similar ever seen from our sun, a new study finds.

The new results may shed light on the effects these powerful outbursts may have had on early Earth when life was born, and could have on modern Earth and our societies, the researchers said.

Our sun often sets off flares that can store as much energy as millions of hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time. Solar flares are often accompanied by giant bright tendrils of solar plasma known as filaments, which can set off magnetic bubbles of super-hot plasma called coronal mass ejections that rush through space at millions of miles per hour.

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When coronal mass ejections hit Earth, they can fry satellites in orbit and unleash major disturbances known as geomagnetic storms that can wreak havoc on power grids. For example, in 1989, a coronal mass ejection darkened the entire Canadian province of Quebec in seconds, damaging transformers as far away as New Jersey and nearly shutting down American power grids from the mid-Atlantic to the Pacific Northwest.

“Coronal mass ejections can have a serious impact on Earth and human society,” study co-author Yuta Notsu, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement.

Previous research found that distant yellow dwarf stars could explode with “super flares,” bursts that contain 10 times more energy than the largest known solar flares. Theoretically, super flares could fire equally supercoronal mass ejections much more powerful than those produced by our sun, but astronomers have so far seen no evidence that they were true.

“Coronal mass ejections are the most important aspect when it comes to considering the effects of superbrightness on planets, especially on our Earth,” Notsu told Space.com.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed EK Draconis, a star located about 111 light years from Earth. EK Draconis is a yellow dwarf like the sun, but is much younger at only 50 to 125 million years old. “It’s what our sun looked like 4.5 billion years ago,” Notsu said in the statement.

Previous work found that EK Draconis often erupted with flares, suggesting that astronomers monitoring it might be lucky in finding super flares and giant coronal mass ejections. In the new study, the scientists observed EK Draconis from January to April 2020 using NASA’s transiting exoplanet exploration satellite, the Seimei telescope at Kyoto University, and the Nayuta telescope at the Nishi-Harima Astronomical Observatory.

On April 5, 2020, the research team’s hunch paid off: Scientists detected a superbright that was followed about 30 minutes later by what appeared to be a coronal mass ejection moving at approximately 1.1 million mph (1.8 million kph). They estimated that its mass was 10 times that of the largest known solar coronal mass ejection.

“This is the first detection of a possible coronal mass ejection from a solar-type star,” Notsu told Space.com.

Notsu noted that the team was only able to catch the initial phase of the coronal mass ejection, so it is unclear whether it fell on the star or was ejected into space. Future research should employ a range of telescopes to investigate the later phases of coronal mass ejections around other stars, he said.

These findings suggest that the young sun may also have triggered giant coronal mass ejections that, in turn, could have influenced early Earth. “In other words, coronal mass ejections can be strongly related to the environment where life was born,” Notsu told Space.com.

Notsu noted that the super-bright ones in our sun seem weird. Still, data from tree rings and other sources suggest that the sun may have struck Earth with super flares multiple times in the past 10,000 years, he added.

“Discussions about the possibilities and effects of super flares and supercoronal mass ejections in our society are important,” said Notsu.

The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 9 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Originally posted on Space.com. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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