A decade-old solar flare could spell bad news for life on other planets.
Astronomers from Italy, using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in Massachusetts, have revealed a flare from a giant star 10 years ago was followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME), the first seen for a star other than the sun, ScienceNews reports Tuesday.
A coronal mass ejection is a burst of plasma and charged particles. It commonly follows a solar flare, a period of intense brightness we often see on the surface of the sun.
The giant star in question is called HR 9024, which lies 450 light-years away from Earth. It’s about three times as massive as the sun and 10 times as wide.
The discovery comes after astronomers used a new method for analyzing the decade-old flare. While the stellar flare flashed, the team noticed material moving up and down a loop of plasma extending from the star’s surface.
The team saw the material by measuring the change in wavelengths of certain X-rays, called the Doppler shift, as material moved toward or away from Earth. The material continued to move away from the star after the flare had stopped, indicative of a coronal mass ejection.
‘People have looked for this for a long time, and this is the first time this has been seen,’ astrophysicist Julián Alvarado-Gómez of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, told ScienceNews.
Alvarado-Gómez’s team ran computer simulations demonstrating how a strong magnetic field, which is associated with flares, can act as a cage, keeping CMEs tethered to the star. This could be one explanation for why scientists haven’t detected a CME from another star before.
ScienceNews explains strong magnetic fields are associated with more flares, which might not be great for the formation of life on exoplanets. ‘The bad news is this energy has to go somewhere, and maybe it goes into powering more flares,’ Alvarado-Gómez told ScienceNews.
Earth’s magnetic field provides some protection from CMEs from our own sun, but they can wreak havoc on electronics and anything in orbit. Potentially habitable planets close to flare-prone stars, such as HR 9024, aren’t so lucky.
‘If those flares are accompanied by these particle emissions at the same rate that they are in the sun,’ astronomer Cynthia Froning of the University of Texas at Austin told ScienceNews, ‘it’s going to be very detrimental to the formation of life and the maintenance of those planets’ atmospheres.’