Foom! ‘Superflares’ Erupt From Tiny Red Dwarf Star, Surprising Scientists

Don’t get too close to this little star! In April, a red dwarf star sent out a series of explosions that peaked at 10,000 times as powerful as the largest solar flare ever recorded.

The tiny star packs a powerful punch because its spin is so quick: it rotates in less than a day, or 30 times faster than the Sun does. Astronomers believe that in the distant past, when the Sun was young, it also was a fast turner — and could have produced “superflares”, as NASA terms the explosions, of its own.

“We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks,” stated Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “This was a very complex event.”

The surprising activity came from a red dwarf star in a binary system that together is known as DG Canum Venaticorum (DG CVn). Located just 60 light-years away, the two red dwarfs are each about one-third the size and mass of the Sun. Astronomers can’t say for sure which one sent out the eruption because the stars were so close to each other, at about three times the distance of Earth’s average distance to the sun.

The first flare (which sent out a burst of X-rays) caused an alert in NASA’s Swift Space Telescope’s burst alert telescope on April 23. It’s believed to be caused by the same process that creates flares on our Sun — magnetic field lines twisting and then releasing a burst of energy that sends out radiation.

Three hours later came another flare — scientists have seen similar events on the Sun after one active region sets off flares in another — and then came “successively weaker blasts” in the next 11 days, NASA said. Normal X-ray emissions stabilized about 20 days after the first flare. Swift is now monitoring this star for further activity.

Drake presented his results at the August meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s high energy astrophysics division, which was highlighted in a recent release from NASA.

Source: NASA

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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