A Superflare from the Sun Could Cause the End of Technological Civilization
Superflares are massive stellar eruptions, creating dramatic pyrotechnic displays visible from Earth, even from the edge of the galaxy. Astronomers studying this newly-discovered phenomenon believed these events take place on young, active stars. However, new research shows these superflares could also occur on middle-aged stars like our stellar companion.
Our Sun is roughly 4.6 billion years old, and is expected to remain stable for roughly that same amount of time, qualifying the Sun as a middle-aged star. Although superflares are most common on young bodies, older stars like our Sun may also play host to these events, researchers discovered. If such an event were to take place in our own Solar System, however, it could have devastating consequences for our technological civilization.
“Young stars have superflares once every week or so. For the sun, it’s once every few thousand years on average… If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora. Now, it’s a much bigger problem because of our electronics,” said Yuta Notsu, visiting researcher at CU Boulder.
Superflares are less likely to happen on the Sun than on a young star, but such events could still take place on our stellar parent once every few thousand years. A superflare happening today would not be likely to strip our world of its atmosphere. However, such an event could bathe the Earth in high-energy radiation, damaging satellites,wreaking havoc with electronics, and causing blackouts around the world.
An Unexpected Discovery
Superflares were first seen by an unlikely instrument — the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009. This space-based observatory was designed to search alien stars for planets. However, the instruments onboard the craft also recorded something unusual about the stars themselves. At times, stellar bodies would flare up in brightness, before dimming again. Energy from these eruptions was found to be hundreds or thousands of times more energetic than common flares, earning them the moniker of “superflares.”
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope took up the study of superflares discovered by Kepler. This program, HAZMAT — HAbitable Zones and M dwarf Activity across Time, records data on these massive eruptions on one class of star. Red dwarf stars, or M dwarfs, are the most common, and longest-lived, type of stars in the galaxy. Many theorists believe planets and moons orbiting these stars may be among the most likely places to find alien life. However, superflares could play havoc for lifeforms dependent on an atmosphere for survival.
“Flares like we observed have the capacity to strip away the atmosphere from a planet. But that doesn’t necessarily mean doom and gloom for life on the planet. It just might be different life than we imagine. Or there might be other processes that could replenish the atmosphere of the planet. It’s certainly a harsh environment, but I would hesitate to say that it is a sterile environment,” explains Parke Lloyd of Arizona State University.
“If there is a solar flare or a nuclear war, a thousand cans of pickled turnips aren’t going to save you.”
― Sarah Lotz, The Three
A Twisted Tale
Like everyday solar flares, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), superflares develop when magnetic lines on a star become twisted from processes taking place within the stellar interior.
“Like the sudden release of a twisted rubber band, the magnetic fields explosively realign, driving vast amounts of energy into space. This phenomenon can create a sudden flash of light — a solar flare. Flares can last minutes to hours and they contain tremendous amounts of energy… Some of the energy released in the flare also accelerates very high energy particles that can reach Earth in tens of minutes,” NASA officials explain.
Researchers studied superflares emanating from 43 stars much like our own Sun, in data recorded by the Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. Their research uncovered, for the first time, that superflares take place on older stars, such as our own stellar companion.
Although superflares are not common on the Sun, the potential for such an event is still very real, and the results of such an eruption could be devastating for our technological civilization.