Every now and then, stars on the other side of the galaxy appear to burn a little brighter. Astronomers suspect this happens when the distant suns let off massive “superflares” that could be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than the solar flares recorded here on Earth in the modern era. But new research suggests that our sun could be capable of shooting a superflare in our direction, and it might be relatively soon.
Younger, more rapidly-rotating stars tend to flare more often and are capable of more intensity. Our sun is older and less active, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally lost its juice, according to Yuta Notsu, a visiting researcher at CU Boulder.
Notsu and colleagues used Kepler Space Telescope data to check for evidence of superflares on other stars like our sun.
“The Kepler results suggest that slowly rotating, sun-like stars can also have superflares,” Notsu said during a press conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis on Monday.
A paper laying out the findings was published last month in The Astrophysical Journal.
“Our study shows that superflares are rare events,” said Notsu. “But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so.”
Perhaps the closest thing to a superflare experienced on Earth is the Carrington Event of 1859, which is said to have caused Aurora Borealis as far south as Hawaii and destroyed telegraph infrastructure. Notsu said the type of superflares his team describes would be at least 100 times more powerful.
If such a powerful flare were to bombard Earth right now, it could do serious damage to our communications and energy networks, beginning with satellites in orbit down to the hard-wired information and electrical systems on the ground.
“If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora,” Notsu explained. “Now, it’s a much bigger problem because of our electronics.”
There’s no way to know when a superflare might be loosed from the sun, but one thing is for sure: it’s never too early to start making preparations to protect electronic infrastructure from a big blast of radiation.