Without the sun, life we will know would be impossible. While the sun is more than 91 million miles from Earth, its solar flares and corona mass ejections (CME) can significantly impact our planet. Recently, researchers at Boulder University in Colorado explored a star system more than 111 light-years away from our planet and observed something interesting.
The star, EK Draconis, had a massive CME that was much more powerful than anything ever observed on the sun. CME, sometimes known as a solar storm, occurring on the sun can significantly impact the Earth by disrupting satellites in orbit and the grid on the ground. CMEs occur regularly in the sun and throw massive plasma clouds into space, traveling millions of miles per hour. The CME that occurred on EK Draconis was significantly larger than any CME that the sun has ever produced in recorded history.
The massive CME was observed on EK Draconis in April 2020. It ejected plasma with a mass measured in the trillions of kilograms, about ten times larger than the most powerful CME ever recorded by another Sun-like star. One researcher on the study is astrophysicist Yuta Notsu, who said that a large mass ejection of this type could theoretically occur on the sun. Notsu said, observing the massive ejection on EK Draconis, scientists can understand how a similar event could have affected Earth or Mars for billions of years.
CMEs are often observed after a star produces flare, which is an explosion of radiation that extends far into space. The image below shows a solar flare occurring on the solar surface provided by NASA. According to researchers in the study, young sun-like stars scattered across the galaxy experience frequent flares, similar to the sun’s flares on the sun but much more powerful. Superflags can be tens to hundreds of times more powerful than the flares that occur in the sun.
While overflows occur more regularly on younger stars, they could still occur in the sun. Scientists believe that massive flares could occur in the sun every few thousand years. That fact led researchers to question whether a massive CME could occur after a massive overflight. To answer this question, scientists are beginning to study EK Draconis, which is about the same size as the sun but is only 100 million years old. By comparison, the sun is estimated to be over 4.6 billion years old.
Notsu says that EK Draconis is what our sun looked like 4.5 billion years ago. For their study, the team observed the star for 32 nights during the winter and spring of 2020. Observations were made using the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the SEIMEI telescope at Kyoto University. During their observations, the star produced a very large overflow, and about 30 minutes after the flare, the team observed what appeared to be a CME erupting from the star’s surface.
The team could only observe the first step in the life of the CME, called the filament eruption phase. While they were only observing the first phase of the CME, it was enough to determine that it was extremely large and moving at about 1 million miles per hour. The findings suggest that a similarly massive superflight and CME could occur in the sun.
However, the team concedes that phenomena such as superflames and CMEs are likely to be rare for a star as old as the sun. Scientists estimate that the sun is still 7 to 8 billion years old. Notsu believes that CMEs and overflows such as those observed on EK Draconis could have been common earlier in the life of the sun. Such phenomena could have helped shape Earth and Mars into the planets we know today.
Notsu believes that the thin atmosphere that Mars has today could result from being hit by a massive CME. Scientists know that Mars had a much thicker Earth-like atmosphere in the distant past. Evidence is also rising that Mars had liquid water on its surface in the distant past. Notsu believes that there is a possibility that Mars could have been hit by CME material similar to what was observed on EK Draconis, making it the desert planet we see today.