Mega gas eruption in space: what we know about the star that caused it

This is EK Draconis, it's only about 100 million years old and has emitted a huge amount of magnetic plasma gas. The celestial body is similar to the Sun, but much younger

A star much like the Sun has emitted a mega ball of magnetic plasma gas 10 times larger than any other celestial body of the same type ever observed so far. This is EK Draconis, which is only about 100 million years old and thus looks like a baby version of our star, i.e., it is similar to what Earth's Sun looked like about 4.5 billion years ago. That's according to Yuta Notsu, a research associate at the University of Colorado's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics who is leading the new research.

The Sun-like star's eruption

The results of the study suggest that the Sun is capable of erupting coronal mass (CME), or bubbles of plasma gas, larger than those directly observed to date. However, because the Sun is older than EK Draconis, it is likely to be calmer, with massive CMEs occurring further and further apart. Understanding their distance is important, however, because these energetic and magnetic eruptions interact with Earth's atmosphere, for example by causing geomagnetic storms that can disrupt satellites, cause electrical blackouts, and disrupt the Internet and other communications.

CMEs are also a potential hazard for manned missions to the Moon or Mars. These solar storms, in fact, send out high-energy particle streams that can expose anyone outside Earth's protective magnetic shield to as much radiation as 300,000 X-rays at once, according to NASA. Large bursts of electromagnetic radiation are called superflares. Researchers have found that young sun-like stars emit superflares on a weekly basis, while older stars produce them less frequently, perhaps every 1,000 years or so.

The importance of the EK Draconis eruption

Superflares, in and of themselves, are not dangerous, but the coronal mass eruptions that can follow them can be. Notsu and his colleagues observed the young star between January and April 2020, across 111 light-years of space, with NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and Kyoto University's SEIMEI Telescope. On April 5, they got what they were looking for: a change in the light spectra emitted by EK Draconis, indicating a spot of plasma traveling toward Earth. The flare was traveling at about 1 million mph (1.6 million km/h) and had a mass of more than 2 quadrillion pounds (1 quadrillion kilograms), 10 times the mass of any observed solar flare. "This is very useful for estimating what the CME might look like with a superflare on our sun," Notsu said.

Observing a solar flare, which occurs once every thousand years, is not easy. The first direct observation occurred in 1859, which means humans have had a record of the Sun's surface and atmospheric activity for less than 200 years. The new observations of EK Draconis captured only the first phase of the CME, and researchers are still unsure how many superflares end with coronal mass eruptions and how many diminish without a plasma burst. But studying stars similar to what the young Sun looked like may be important, according to the scientists in the new research, not only for planning for a potential CME-caused catastrophe, but also for opening a window into our solar system's past.

In the meantime, another study has observed that the Sun would be waking up.

Stefania Bernardini