Extremely Powerful Sun 'Superflares' Could Disrupt Electronics Across the Globe

Superflares are explosive galactic events in which stars emit extremely powerful and sudden bursts of energy, thousands of times stronger than normal solar flares.

It was long thought that these superflares only took place on young and active stars and that our sun—which is much older—would not be capable of producing them.

But according to a study published in The Astrophysical Journal, such superflares can indeed occur on stars like our 4.6-billion-year-old sun. This is bad news given the potentially damaging consequences for humanity.

"Superflares are massive explosive releases of magnetic energies on the surface of a star," Yuta Notsu, lead author of the study from the University of Colorado Boulder, told Newsweek. "The total energies of superflares are at least 10 times larger than that of the largest solar flare ever observed in our modern solar observations."

"Even relatively large solar flares can have severe impacts on society," he said. "However, it had been believed that superflares cannot occur on the sun. We wanted to investigate whether this 'common sense' is really correct or not."

For the study, Notsu's team analyzed data collected by the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This included records of superflares that had originated from more than 40 sun-like stars.

"We used the stellar distance and radius data from Gaia and the spectroscopic data from the Apache Point Observatory," Notsu said. "Through this,
we investigated whether the superflare stars found from Kepler data are really 'sun-like' stars or not. [We also investigated] how frequently superflares can occur on slowly-rotating sun-like stars."

They found that while superflares occur much more frequently in young stars—about every week or so—older stars do produce them, albeit, on average, every few thousand years.

"Our study shows that superflares are rare events," Notsu said in a statement. "But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so."

"When our sun was young, it was very active because it rotated very fast and probably generated more powerful flares," Notsu said. "But we didn't know if such large flares occur on the modern sun with very low frequency."

If the sun produced a superflare today, the star would emit vast amounts of high energy radiation which could wreak havoc with electronics across our planet.

"If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora," Notsu said in a statement. "Now, it's a much bigger problem because of our electronics."

Among the potential consequences, such an event could lead to blackouts all around the world, or cause satellites in orbit to malfunction—disabling communications technologies, global positioning systems and more.

Unfortunately, the researchers say it is not possible to predict when our sun will produce a superflare. However, given their findings, one will likely happen at some point, so it's probably worth thinking about damage limitation plans now.

Superflares were first spotted by astronomers looking at data collected by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. They noticed that, at times, the light from some distant stars, hundreds of light-years away, would rapidly get brighter for a relatively short period of time. These events are far more powerful than the flares that are often produced by our sun.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Yuta Notsu.

An artist's depiction of a superflare on an alien star. NASA, ESA and D. Player