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Words Matter: Super Flares and Planets

“New research will help astrobiologists understand how much radiation planets experience during super flares and whether life could exist on worlds beyond our solar system.” Super flares are bursts of high energy particles ejected from stars! They can cause radiation poisoning to humans and other mammals and large doses could be fatal.

They cover planets in ultraviolet light, sometimes so much light that it hurts life on the planet. This means that they would be dangerous to unshielded astronauts traveling to the moon. They can even knock out electrical grids, satellite communications and the internet! Do not worry though, the last solar flare that hit the Earth was actually in September of 1859: it was a solar coronal mass ejection that hit Earth’s magnetosphere (the region surrounding the earth where the magnetic field is most predominant).

Super flares are 10 to 1,000 times larger than the biggest flares we have seen from our Sun. They commonly emit most of their UV radiation during a peak lasting only five to 15 minutes. "We found planets orbiting young stars may experience life-prohibiting levels of UV radiation, although some micro-organisms might survive," said lead study Ward S. Howard. He is a doctoral student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"Longer term these results may inform the choice of planetary systems to be observed by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope based on the system's flaring activity," said study co-author Nicholas M. Law, associate professor of physics and astronomy at UNC-Chapel Hill and principal investigator of the Evryscope telescope.

These researchers have, for the first time, measured the temperatures of a large sample of super flares from stars and the UV emissions. These findings will allow researchers to put limits on the habitability of planets that are the targets of upcoming planet-finding missions. Through their efforts, the team discovered a “statistical relationship between the size of a super flare and its temperature. The temperature predicts the amount of radiation that potentially precludes on-surface life.”


Sources:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "New research explores how super flares affect planets' habitability: Largest ever sample of super flares." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 October 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201007123037.htm>.


Written by: Hannah Burleson

Edited by: Katie Last

Graphic by: Teju Calambakkam



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