London, Mar 27: The Sun is capable of producing monstrous eruptions or 'superflares' that can not only break down radio communication and power supplies, but also affect Earth's ability to support life, scientists say. Earth is often struck by solar eruptions.
These eruptions consist of energetic particles that are hurled away from the Sun into space, where those directed towards Earth encounter the magnetic field around our planet.
When these eruptions interact with Earth's magnetic field they cause beautiful auroras. When the Sun pours out gigantic amounts of hot plasma during the large solar eruptions, it may have severe consequences on Earth.
Solar eruptions are, however, nothing compared to the eruption we see on other stars, known as 'superflares'. Superflares have been a mystery since the Kepler mission discovered them in larger numbers four years ago.
The largest observed eruption took place in September 1859, where gigantic amounts of hot plasma from our neighbouring star struck Earth. Telegraph system worldwide went haywire, and ice core records from Greenland indicate Earth's protective ozone layer was damaged by the energetic particles from the solar storm.
Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark used observations of magnetic fields on the surface of almost 100,000 stars made with the new Guo Shou Jing telescope in China to show that these superflares are likely formed via the same mechanism as solar flares.
"The magnetic fields on the surface of stars with superflares are generally stronger than the magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun," said Christoffer Karoff, from Aarhus University.
However, of all the stars with superflares that researchers analysed, about 10 per cent had a magnetic field with a strength similar to or weaker than that of the Sun's. Therefore, even though it is not very likely, it is not impossible that the Sun could produce a superflare.
"We certainly did not expect to find superflare stars with magnetic fields as week as the magnetic fields on the Sun. This opens the possibility that the Sun could generate a superflare," said Karoff.
If an eruption of this size was to strike Earth today, it would have devastating consequences. Not just for all electronic equipment on Earth, but also for our atmosphere and thus our planet's ability to support life.
Evidence from geological archives has shown that the Sun might have produced a small superflare in 775 AD. Tree rings show that anomalously large amounts of the radioactive isotope 14C were formed in Earth's atmosphere, researchers said.
14C is formed when cosmic-ray particles from our galaxy, the Milky Way, or especially energetic protons from the Sun, formed in connection with large solar eruptions, enter Earth's atmosphere, they said. The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.