Imagine a solar flare thousands of times more powerful than ever recorded from our sun. That’s what new research found from KIC9655129, a binary star located in the Milky Way. Your average solar flare produces the energy equivalent of around 100 million megaton bombs. A superflare magnifies that to 100 billion megaton bombs.

The solar flare related blackout that struck Quebec in 1989? Yeah, a superflare impact would have a much more devastating impact. Here’s how the University of Warwick’s Chloë Pugh describes it:

“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.”

Superflares and the Sun

quiet sun

Artist impression of ‘quiet’ sun. Credit: University of Warwick/Ronald Warmington

Why all the talk about superflares and our sun? Researchers used NASA’s Kepler space telescope to observe KIC9655129. They found wave patterns were similar to those seen in solar flares from the sun. The similarities in wave patterns suggest the underlying physics of flares may be the same. And the sun could produce a superflare.

Pugh touches on what they did next. “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.”

And what they found. “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”.

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superflare sun

Artist impression of superflare from the sun. Credit: University of Warwick/Ronald Warmington

Co-author Dr. Anne-Marie Broomhall (also from the University of Warwick) dives into the science.

“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.”

Analysis showed “two significant periodicities.” The chances of this being observed by chance are less than 1%.

Broomhall continues: “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”.

The good news

While the sun’s potential to produce a superflare makes for a great headline, the chances of it happening are slim.

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

Be glad. The effects of a superflare and the corresponding coronal mass ejection (CME) would be bad on Earth. But it would be even worse in space. During the 1989 Quebec event, several satellites tumbled out of control for several hours. Even the Space Shuttle’s instruments showed problems where there weren’t any. One sensor showed unusually high pressure readings on the day of the storm. That censor stopped malfunctioning as the storm dissipated.

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NASA’s Kepler mission is best known for looking for Earth-size planets. But the stars around these planets are just as important. One of Kepler’s key science objectives is to determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

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