Massive Stellar Flare on a Baby Star could Create the Building Blocks of Potentially Habitable Exoplanets

Massive Stellar Flare on a Baby Star could Create the Building Blocks of Potentially Habitable Exoplanets

Scientists recorded a big flare in a small package on an M-type star.

Astronomers have witnessed a huge stellar flare on a baby star. They say that this flare is about 10,000 times bigger than the largest solar flare recorded in history. Some say that the flare is so powerful that it may create new planets. This baby star is 2 million years old and 685 light years from Earth. According to the discovery published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the flare could be strong enough to affect the materials of nearby planets which would ultimately result in new planets being formed in the future.

The Next Generation Transit Survey telescope (NGTS) at the University of Warwick was used to capture this event, which took place on an M-type star called NGTS J1219339.5-355557. Astronomers believe that this star is still young and will continue to grow for quite some time. Dubbed as a ‘big flare in a small package’, it is uncertain whether the flare will have positive or negative outcomes on nearby stellar bodies. The nearby planet formation may have been affected due to the emission of a large number of X-rays during the event.

A stellar flare occurs when a magnetic field of a star is rearranged. This results in a huge amount of energy (3.2 undecillion erg in this case) being released. Subsequently, the particles within the star accelerate and crash into the star’s own surface, thus increasing the temperatures to around 10,000 degrees.

Stellar flares are impulsive releases of energy. These can happen about twice every 10 years. The energy produces optical and infrared light that can be picked up easily by telescopes. Furthermore, X-rays and Gamma are also released that the satellites in orbit can also pick up. Normally, to witness such an event, long duration measurements of many stars must be done. This event was observed as a part of a large flare survey of thousands of stars. James Jackman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Warwick, talked about that and said,

“This is normally a star that shows little activity and stays a constant brightness. Then, on this one particular night, we saw it suddenly grow seven times brighter than normal for a few hours, which is pretty extreme. And then after that, it goes back to normal. We see these types of flares on the Sun, but no-where near as big as this. On our Sun, you can do incredibly detailed studies on this kind of activity. It’s difficult to extend that understanding to other stars because the data we need hasn’t been available until now.”

The baby star is 2000 degrees cooler than our Sun but is about the same size. However, this star is quite large in size when compared to other similar M-type stars. The star just started its life and is expected to live on for tens of billions of years. X-rays from such flares have a role in the formation of Calcium-Aluminum grains aka Chondrules. These grains slowly join to form asteroids and eventually whole planets. However, it is still unknown how the flare would affect planet formation. Peter Wheatley, the supervisor of Jackman, referred to that uncertainty by saying,

“A massive flare like this could be advantageous for planet formation, or it could be disruptive. There’s a discussion at the moment around whether flares are a good or bad thing for life on orbiting habitable planets, because they output a large amount of UV radiation. That could cause biological damage to surface organisms and damage their DNA. On the other hand, UV radiation is required for various chemical reactions to start life and that’s not typically provided in great enough quantity by these types of stars. These flares could potentially kick-start these reactions.”

To look at this more scientifically, researchers found significant multi-mode Quasi-Periodic Pulsations (QPP). The team stressed the importance of this discovery as observing such pulsations is quite rare. They also credited the Gaia Mission from earlier this year to make such discoveries possible. Case in point, the flares on this planet appeared around 320 and 660 seconds while having the amplitude of 0.1. Astronomers reported that these were the largest pulsations and amplitude ever recorded. Scientists believe events like these are extremely important to learn about planetary formation, so we can answer the burning question: How did the Earth and similar exoplanets form?

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