Our Sun Shows The Potential To Superflare

Posted: Dec 4 2015, 6:38am CST | by , Updated: Dec 4 2015, 6:53am CST, in News | Latest Science News


Our Sun Demonstrates the Potential to Superflare
SUN_A border and SUN_B border side by side in landscape. Credit: University of Warwick/Ronald Warmington
  • The Sun is capable of Flares a Thousandfold as Strong as it Normally sends out

The sun is capable of flares a thousandfold as strong as it normally sends out.

Stellar research points towards the sun’s ability to undergo the process of releasing superflares. A superflare on a star different from our sun has been seen via the Kepler telescope. However, it is similar in its nature to the kind found on the sun. Superflares are a thousand times more powerful than normal flares on the solar surface. The binary star labelled KIC9655129 is especially known to engage in superflares. 

Since many of the superflares on the sun and KIC9655129 are the same, it could serve to give us an example of the basis of these superflares. The physical process is one and the same. A flare has the power of a 100 million megaton bombs. However, a superflare could add up to a billion megaton bombs which means a messy heat wave.

Were the sun to undergo a superflare, the communication and energy sytems on our planet earth would malfunction in a major way. The failure would be very apparent and we would be left making rationalizations. 

The solar system is suffused with plasma which consists of ionized gases. These have their origins in the sun which gives rise to solar wind and eruptions time after time. Stars similar to the sun have been known to break out into superflare eruptions.

Whether our sun will produce such a superflare remains to be seen. Solar flares normally occur in pulses that have a regular time span between their occurrence. They follow the pattern of waves with matching wavelengths.

This field of endeavor studying these phenomena is named coronal seismology. Sometimes the sun produces flares in the form of waves superimposed on top of each other. 

Lead researcher, Chloë Pugh from the University of Warwick's Centre for Fusion, Space and Astrophysics, explains: "Our solar system is filled with plasma, or ionised gas, originating from the Sun as a result of the solar wind and other more violent solar eruptions, such as solar flares. Stars very similar to the Sun have been observed to produce enormous flares, called superflares. To give us a better indication of whether the Sun could produce a catastrophic superflare, we need to determine whether the same physical processes are responsible for both stellar superflares and solar flares.

"Solar flares are commonly observed to consist of a series of regularly occurring pulses. Often these pulsations resemble waves, with a wavelength that relates to various properties of the region of the Sun that is producing the flare. The study of waves such as these is referred to as coronal seismology. Occasionally solar flares contain multiple waves superimposed on top of one another, which can easily be explained by coronal seismology. We have found evidence for multiple waves, or multiple periodicities, in a stellar superflare, and the properties of these waves are consistent with those that occur in solar flares.

Chloë Pugh further explained potential consequences of the Sun superflaring. "If the Sun were to produce a superflare it would be disastrous for life on Earth; our GPS and radio communication systems could be severely disrupted and there could be large scale power blackouts as a result of strong electrical currents being induced in power grids, he said. 

"Fortunately the conditions needed for a superflare are extremely unlikely to occur on the Sun, based on previous observations of solar activity."

There are multiple waves, multiple periodicities and superflares. All of these phenomenon can be explained by coronal seismology. Whatever the case, were the sun to produce a superflare, it would have a very bad effect on our planet.

Besides disrupting the GPS and radio communication systems, there would be large scale power failures. This would bring everyday life to a standstill. It is highly fortunate for us humans that any chances of a superflare on the sun are highly unlikely. There are certain conditions that are observed whenever there is a superflare. And they have not been seen to occur on the sun. 

Research co-author Dr Anne-Marie Broomhall from the University of Warwick explains: "When a flare occurs we typically see a rapid increase in intensity followed by a gradual decline. Usually the decline phase is relatively smooth but occasionally there are noticeable bumps, which are termed 'quasi-periodic pulsations' or QPPs. We used techniques called wavelet analysis and Monte Carlo modelling in order to assess the periodicity and statistical significance of these QPPs."

"We then fitted a model to the flare light curve that described both the exponential decay phase and the two periodicities. The periods were found to be 78 minutes and 32 minutes respectively. The properties of the periodicities, such as their decay times, imply that the two periodicities are independent", says Dr Broomhall.

"The most plausible explanation for the presence of two independent periodicities is that the QPPs were caused by magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) oscillations, which are frequently observed in solar flares. This result is, therefore, an indication that the same physical processes are involved in both solar flares and stellar superflares. The latter finding supports the hypothesis that the Sun is able to produce a potentially devastating superflare".

This research is titled A Multi-Period Oscillation in a Stellar Superflare. And it is published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/20" rel="author">Sumayah Aamir</a>
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