Skip to main content

Our nearest neighboring star emits record-breaking stellar flare

Artist's conception of the violent stellar flare from Proxima Centauri discovered by scientists in 2019 using nine telescopes across the electromagnetic spectrum, including the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Powerful flares eject from Proxima Centauri with regularity, impacting the star's planets almost daily.
Artist’s conception of the violent stellar flare from Proxima Centauri discovered by scientists in 2019 using nine telescopes across the electromagnetic spectrum, including the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Powerful flares eject from Proxima Centauri with regularity, impacting the star’s planets almost daily. S. Dagnello, NRAO/AUI/NSF

A team of astronomers has observed the largest ever stellar flare emitted by our neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. The flare is 100 times more powerful than any solar flare coming from our sun and could be relevant to the search for habitable worlds.

Proxima Centauri is a type of star called a red dwarf, with a lower mass than our sun and giving off less light. But despite its seemingly calm exterior, the star undergoes dramatic stellar flares.

“Stars like Proxima Centauri look different from our sun, and they behave differently too,” explained co-author of the research, Parke Loyd of the Arizona State University, in a statement. “In particular, they flare a lot more than the sun, but we are only beginning to understand the magnitude and character of their flares.”

The researchers wanted to know whether these stellar flares are similar to the solar flares given out by our sun and whether both are caused by the same mechanisms. So they observed Proxima Centauri using telescopes including Hubble over a period in 2019 and looked in the ultraviolet wavelength to identify bursts of radiation.

“When the data from the Hubble Space Telescope came in and we made our first plot of how much ultraviolet light Proxima Centauri was emitting at each instant of the observations, it immediately became clear that we had caught a remarkable event,” said Loyd. “It was extremely bright and extremely brief. In only a few seconds the star’s ultraviolet radiation grew about 14,000 times brighter. ”

As well as learning about stars, this research could be important in the search for habitable exoplanets. “A lot of the exoplanets that we’ve found so far are around these types of stars,” lead author Meredith MacGregor of the University of Colorado-Boulder said. “But the catch is that they’re way more active than our sun. They flare much more frequently and intensely.”

Proxima Centauri hosts at least two planets, one of which, Proxima b, is in the habitable zone. But flares from the star may make these planets less hospitable for life.

“Humans cannot see ultraviolet light, but some animals, like some species of jumping spiders, can,” Loyd explained. “Imagining we could see ultraviolet light and we were standing on the planet Proxima Centauri b when this flare happened, we would have experienced a blinding flash, just about at the limit of our visual range.

“If organisms do exist on a planet like this, I suspect they would have to react very quickly to protect themselves at the earliest indication of a flare, and they would need to do this several times per day.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Hunting for evidence of the first stars that ever existed
This artist’s impression shows a field of Population III stars as they would have appeared a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers may have discovered the first signs of their ancient chemical remains in the clouds surrounding one of the most distant quasars ever detected.

As the universe has aged, the type of stars found within it has changed. Heavy elements like iron are created by the reactions which happen inside stars, and when those stars eventually run out of fuel and explode as supernovae, those heavier elements are spread around and incorporated into the next generation of stars. So over time, stars gradually gained higher levels of these heavier elements, which astronomers refer to as their metallicity.

That means that if you could look back at the very earliest stars, born when the universe was young, they would be quite different from stars today. These early stars are known as Population III stars, formed when the universe was less than 100 million years old, and searching for them has been one of the holy grails of astronomy research.

Read more
SpaceX breaks its record for number of launches per year
spacex yearly launch record fytculmvsaacri0 1

SpaceX has changed the way we think about rocket launches through its use of reusable rocket boosters, and yesterday the company hit an impressive milestone when it broke its record for the number of launches achieved in one calendar year. Its previous record was for 31 launches in 2021, but on Friday, January 22 the company launched its 32nd mission of this year even though it's only July.

The 32nd launch used a Falcon 9 rocket to carry a batch of 46 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, where they will join the thousands of other Starlink satellites forming a constellation that is intended to provide global broadband internet access. Liftoff was at 1:40 p.m. ET from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, after the launch was pushed back by one day from its originally planned date of Thursday.

Read more
See our galactic neighbors as you’ve never seen them before
The Andromeda galaxy, or M31, is shown here in far-infrared and radio wavelengths of light.

Dust was long considered the bane of astronomers, blocking off light and hiding away objects they wanted to observe. But with the advent of infrared astronomy, researchers found that dust is not a dull curtain, but rather an active and essential ingredient for the way that galaxies evolve.

In recent decades astronomers have come to see dust as a source of scientific discovery and, as demonstrated by a set of images recently released by Hubble scientists, it can be strikingly beautiful as well.

Read more