Within seconds, the star became at least 14,000 times (!) Brighter at ultraviolet wavelengths.
We’ve known for a while that Proxima Centauri – the star closest to our solar system – produces solar flares. But the fact that the star also spawns wild shapes was a complete surprise. Scientists recently discovered the largest solar flare coming from Proxima Centauri. This also has consequences for our pursuit of extraterrestrial life.
More on Proxima Centauri
As mentioned, the star Proxima Centauri is located at a relatively short distance from Earth. For example, a star is only 4 light-years away. As far as we know, Proxima Centauri is home to two planets, one of which could be very similar to Earth. Additionally, the star is the so-called red dwarf. These are the most common and long-lived stars in the universe. Red dwarfs are much cooler than our sun and have less mass. For example, Proxima Centauri has about one-eighth the mass of our sun.
Proxima Centauri is a small but mighty star. We must certainly not underestimate it. In the study published in the journal The Astrophysical Journal LettersFor a period of 40 hours, researchers observed the nearby star using at least nine telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter / Sub-Millimeter Array, and the planetary hunter TESS. As they stared at the star, something amazing happened.
Researchers discovered that Proxima Centauri suddenly produced a giant solar glow. This is a massive explosion of energy on the surface of a star. “Within a few seconds, the star became 14,000 times brighter at UV wavelengths,” says Meredith MacGregor, study lead. In fact, the wild flare was one of the fiercest scientists had ever seen. For example, the observed solar flare was about 100 times stronger than any similar sample. The entire event only took seven seconds.
The strong radiation produced by a solar flare has far-reaching consequences for nearby planets. Because it is very likely that such a planet would be bombarded with high-energy particles during a solar flare. This means that even planets can be completely dismantled from their atmospheres, exposing life forms to deadly radiation. “If there was life on the planet closest to Proxima Centauri, it would likely look very different from Earth,” says MacGregor. “The human being on this planet has been going through a very difficult time.”
As mentioned, the occurrence of solar flares on Proxima Centauri is not a rare occurrence. During the forty hours that researchers stared at the star, they also saw many solar flares – albeit with different orders – pass by. “Planets around Proxima Centauri are bombed at least once a day, though not several times a day,” said MacGregor.
Although not much visible light is produced during a solar flare, it does generate ultraviolet, radio, or “millimeter” radiation. “In the past, we didn’t know there was activity even at these millimeter wavelengths,” says Majrigor. “This is the first time that we are looking for solar flares at millimeter wavelengths.” Researchers now believe that solar flares are caused by a sudden change in the star’s magnetic field. But the observed millimeter signals could reveal more important information about how stars generate these powerful bursts of energy.
The study results suggest that free-flying star Proxima Centauri may have more surprises awaiting us. “There are likely to be other strange types of solar flares that show different kinds of physics that we haven’t even thought of yet,” says MacGregor. Time will tell.
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