BOULDER, Colo. — A devastating solar storm could send mankind back to the dark ages, according to new research. Researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder say astronomers spotted a powerful version of this stellar phenomenon for the first time in a star system just 100 light years away. The team describes that sun’s spectacular fireworks show as “troubling” and warn that a similar event could hit Earth.
The study suggests that such a solar flare would fry satellites in orbit and crash power grids which serve entire cities — causing widespread blackouts and knocking out phone networks.
The star is named EK Draconis – Latin for dragon – and it is essentially breathing fire. Researchers say it lies in the constellation of Draco in the far northern sky. Known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), stars regularly shoot out clouds of extremely hot particles (plasma) that hurtle through space at tremendous speeds.
In our solar system, this is potentially bad news. Every 100 years or so, the Sun releases these clouds in our direction.
“Coronal mass ejections can have a serious impact on Earth and human society,” says co-author Dr. Yuta Notsu in a university release.
Most powerful ejection on record
An international team observed the astonishing burst of energy pouring out of EK Draconis. It was much more powerful than any seen before. Experts fear a catastrophic solar storm will occur in this solar system by the end of the century.
Study leader Kosuke Namekata, a PhD student at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, believes that storm could be just as strong the one from EK Draconis. The researchers used ground and space-based telescopes to peer at the star, which resembles a younger version of our Sun.
It emitted a mass of scorching plasma in the quadrillions of kilograms – over 10 times bigger than the previous record from a sun-like star. Dr. Notsu notes that this event serves as a warning of just how dangerous the weather in space can be.
“This kind of big mass ejection could, theoretically, also occur on our Sun,” Notsu adds. “This observation may help us to better understand how similar events may have affected Earth and even Mars over billions of years.”
CMEs often occur right after a star lets loose a flare — a sudden and bright burst of radiation — that can extend far out into space. An earlier study by the same group found young sun-like stars around the galaxy experience frequent “superflares.”
They are like our own solar flares, but tens or even hundreds of times more potent. Such a superflare could, theoretically, also happen with Earth’s Sun and lead to an equally enormous CME.
“Superflares are much bigger than the flares that we see from the sun,” Notsu continues. “So we suspect that they would also produce much bigger mass ejections. But until recently, that was just conjecture.”
Could our old sun do the same?
Researchers describe EK Draconis as a “curious star” that’s about the same size as the Sun but only 100 million years-old.
“It’s what our sun looked like 4.5 billion years ago,” Dr. Notsu says.
Study authors watched the star for 32 nights in winter and spring last year. They scanned it with NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and Japan’s SEIMEI telescopes. On April 5, 2020, they got lucky as EK Draconis erupted into a superflare — a massive one. Half an hour later, a CME flew from the star’s surface.
The researchers were only able to catch the first step in its life, the “filament eruption” phase. However, it was enough to confirm the flare was a monster, moving at a top speed of roughly one million miles per hour. It would not bode well for life on Earth. The findings, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, hint at our home star also being capable of such violent extremes.
Despite the dire warning, scientists say super CMEs are probably rarer in older stars. They may have been much more common in the early years of the solar system. Gigantic coronal mass ejections, in other words, could have helped to shape planets like Earth and Mars into what they look like today.
“The atmosphere of present-day Mars is very thin compared to Earth’s,” Notsu concludes. “In the past, we think Mars had a much thicker atmosphere. Coronal mass ejections may help us to understand what happened to the planet over billions of years.”
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.