Without the sun we know that life would be impossible. While the sun is over 91 million miles from Earth, its solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) can have a significant impact on our planet. Recently researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder explored a star system more than 111 light years from our planet and observed something interesting.
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
The star, EK Draconis, had a massive CME that was much stronger than anything ever observed on the sun. A CME occurring on the sun, sometimes known as a solar storm, can have a significant impact on the earth by disrupting satellites in orbit and the power grid on the ground. CMEs occur regularly on the sun, throwing massive plasma clouds into space that travel millions of miles per hour. The CME that happened on EK Draconis was significantly larger than any CME the sun has ever produced in recorded history.
The massive CME was observed on EK Draconis in April 2020. It ejected plasma with a mass of quadrillion kilograms, about ten times larger than the strongest CME ever recorded from any other Sun-like star. One researcher on the study is astrophysicist Yuta Notsu, who said that a large mass ejection of this type could theoretically occur on the sun. Notsu said that by observing the massive ejection of EK Draconis, scientists could understand how a similar event could have affected Earth or Mars over billions of years.
CMEs are often observed after a star creates a flare, which is a burst of radiation that extends far into space. The image below shows a NASA-provided solar flare on the solar surface. According to study researchers, young sun-like stars scattered across the galaxy often experience super-eruptions, similar to solar flares on the Sun, but much more powerful. Superflares can be ten to a hundred times stronger than the flares that occur on the sun.
While superflares are more common in younger stars, they could still occur on the sun. Scientists believe that massive flares could appear on the sun every few thousand years. This fact led the researchers to wonder whether a massive CME could occur after a massive superflare. To answer this question, the scientists are starting the EK Draconis study, which is about the size of the sun but only 100 million years old. For comparison: the age of the sun is estimated to be over 4.6 billion years.
Notsu says that EK Draconis is what our sun looked like 4.5 billion years ago. For their study, the team observed the star for 32 nights in winter and spring 2020. The observations were carried out with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the SEIMEI telescope from Kyoto University. During their observations, the star produced a very large superflare, and about 30 minutes after the flare, the team observed what erupted from the surface of the star like a CME.
The team could only observe the first step in the life of the CME, the so-called filament eruption phase. Although they only observed the first phase of the CME, it was enough to determine that it was extremely large, moving at about 1 million miles per hour. The results suggest that a similar massive superflare and CME could occur on the sun.
However, the team admits that phenomena like superflares and CMEs are likely rare for a star as old as the Sun. Scientists assume that the sun has 7 to 8 billion years to live. Notsu believes that CMEs and superflares, as observed on EK Draconis, may have been common earlier in the life of the Sun. Such phenomena could have helped shape Earth and Mars into the planets we know today.
Notsu believes that Mars’ thin atmosphere could be affected by a massive CME today. Scientists know that Mars had a much thicker Earth-like atmosphere in the distant past. There is also mounting evidence that Mars had liquid water on its surface in the distant past. Notsu believes that there is a possibility that Mars was hit by material from a CME similar to that seen on EK Draconis, turning it into the barren planet we see today.