The sun spits up solar flares all the time. No big deal. But you know what it doesn’t normally do? Spit up superflares: events more than a thousand times powerful than regular solar flares. As far as we know, the sun has never superflared. According to new research, however, never say never.
In findings published Wednesday, scientists from England’s University of Warwick report they observed a nearby binary star, KIC 9655129, in the Milky Way, producing regular superflares. The star’s flares are quite similar to the sun’s own solar flares, leading the researchers to believe the sun has a potential to superflare.
Solar flares can cause major problems for the modern world. Practically everything humans do these days is tied to electricity. Last month, we reported on new research that suggests a pair of intense solar flares that hit the Earth during the Middle Ages would cripple the world’s electrical infrastructure if they were to strike today: They’d knock out a lot of communications equipment, and create large scale power blackouts. And those were just regular solar flares.
A typical superflare releases the energy equivalent of a 100 million megaton bombs. If the sun emitted a superflare, however, it would be closer to a billion megaton bombs.
In other words, we’d be fucked.
Lead author Chloe Pugh explains that superflares are actually a very common event in the rest of the Universe. “Most of the stellar flares that we see emitted from other stars are superflares,” she says. “Because the stars are so far away, we can only detect the brightest flares.”
The researchers sought to uncover the kind of physical process responsible for causing both stellar superflares and solar flares. They studied the pulsations associated with each type of flare using the Kepler space telescope, and found that the stellar flares emitted by KIC 9655129 exhibited wave patterns very similar to the sun’s own flares.
So the sun has the potential to emit a civilization-destroying superflare. Rest easy, people — Pugh says that it’s ”very unlikely in our lifetimes” the sun emits a superflare. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t safeguard ourselves from the destruction a normal solar flare could bring, but at least we know our sun isn’t more prone to violence than the rest of the stars of the universe.