Massive Solar Flare on a Nearby Star

The image shows a typical solar flare from our sun, captured in September 2005 in the X-ray waveband by NASA’s TRACE satellite. A solar flare is an explosion on the Sun’s atmosphere that occurs when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields (usually above sunspots) is suddenly released, producing a burst of electromagnetic radiation, from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays.

Scientists using NASA’s SWIFT satellite have just reported a stellar flare on a nearby star so powerful that, had it been from our sun, it would have triggered a mass extinction on Earth. The flare was observed in December, 2005 on a star slightly less massive than the sun, in a two-star system called II Pegasi in the constellation Pegasus. It was about a hundred million times more energetic than the sun’s typical solar flare, releasing energy equivalent to about 50 million trillion atomic bombs.

Fortunately, our sun is now a stable star that doesn’t produce such powerful flares. And II Pegasi is at a safe distance of about 135 light-years from Earth. Scientists believe that had the sun flared like II Pegasi, these hard X-rays would have overwhelmed the Earth’s protective atmosphere, leading to significant climate change and mass extinction. Ironically, one theory posits that stellar particle outbursts are needed to produce dust that can form into planets and perhaps life.

More information and movies can be found on the NASA SWIFT website.

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