Sixteen light-years from Earth lies the red dwarf called AD Leonis. With the help of a new Japanese hilltop telescope, astronomers have been able to detect a dozen stellar flares from this star, one of which was 20 times larger than those emitted by the Sun.
“Solar flares are sudden explosions that emanate from the surfaces of stars, including our own sun,” lead author Kosuke Namekata of Kyoto University, Japan, said in a statement. “On rare occasions, an extremely large superflare will occur. These result in massive magnetic storms, which when emitted from our sun can significantly effect the earth's technological infrastructure.”
A few years ago, the Sun did unleash an enormous solar flare that caused some radio blackouts on Earth, but it was nowhere near energetic enough to be called a superflare. However, if a superflare were to be emitted from the Sun, which some scientists predict could happen within the next 100 years, electrical circuits would be annihilated, causing around $10 trillion worth of damage. Therefore, it is critical we look elsewhere in space to learn more about this powerful phenomenon.
The target of this latest study, published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan, provided the perfect example. As its temperature is much lower than that of our Sun, AD Leonis spurts out a high number of flares. But on Namekata and the team’s first night of observations using the 3.8-meter (12.5-foot) Seimei telescope, they detected an explosive superflare – exceeding all of their expectations.
Further analysis of the flare yielded more surprising results. In comparison with typical solar flares, an order of magnitude more high-energy electrons were released in the superflare. “It's the first time this phenomenon has been reported,” Namekata said, “and its thanks to the high precision of the Seimei Telescope.”
Namekata and colleagues hope to continue to use the new instrument to uncover further information on extreme space events.
“More information on these fundamental stellar phenomena will help us predict superflares, and possibly mitigate magnetic storm damage here on earth,” study co-author Kazunari Shibata also of Kyoto University, explained in a statement. “We may even be able to begin understanding how these emissions can affect the existence – or emergence – of life on other planets.”