Artist's impression of the coronal mass ejection of EK Draconis. Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

Record-Breaking Plasma Explosion From Sun-Like Star Baffles Experts

Researchers have observed the most massive coronal mass ejection of a star outside the Solar System. This phenomenon has forced scientists to ask again the question of how safe it is to live next to such an "explosive" luminary.

Observing the star EK Draconis, located 111 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Draco, astronomers recorded a superflare on it, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. This is the first time such an event has been recorded in a sun-like star and may indicate that in the distant past, the Sun was also characterized by powerful eruptions that had a great impact on the evolution of planets.

What is a coronal mass ejection?

Coronal mass ejections are one of the types of activity of the Sun and other luminaries, which consist in the separation of a noticeable amount of plasma and associated magnetic fields from the outer layers of the star. These events often follow solar flares and are accompanied by the appearance of prominences – clumps of relatively cold matter of the Sun’s photosphere, rising above its surface into the hot corona.

During a coronal mass ejection, a large amount of energy is released in different forms. One of the accompanying phenomena is the appearance of large-scale shock waves in the corona, which can be observed in the extreme ultraviolet range (wavelengths from 121 to 10 nanometers). Such waves, which have a magnetosonic nature, were first recorded using the SOHO satellite at the end of the 20th century.

Plasma clouds separating from the Sun can accelerate to thousands of kilometers per second and when interacting with the Earth and its magnetosphere, cause magnetic storms. The streams of charged particles can damage electronics onboard high-orbit satellites, and in the event of particularly strong events, they can affect the operation of ground-based equipment. The wave accompanying the coronal mass ejection can also travel with the plasma in interplanetary space and take part in the acceleration of particles.

Astronomers observed the most powerful ejection to date

EK Draconis was observed in 2020 for 32 days using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and Japan’s Seimei ground-based telescope. On April 5, astronomers were lucky: first, they recorded a superflare on the star, and after about 30 minutes, a coronal mass ejection, which propagated into space at a speed of about 500 kilometers per second and had a mass 10 times greater than that of the most powerful eruption ever fixed on the sun.

New research co-author Yuta Notsu of the University of Colorado explained that the sun regularly produces similar emissions. And in theory, this is bad news: if a coronal mass ejection hits Earth at this rate, it could disable all satellites in orbit and shut off the power grids that serve entire cities.

However, theoretically, such superflares can occur on our star, but rather rarely, perhaps once every several thousand years.

Nonetheless, could a superflare on the Sun lead to the same large-scale coronal mass ejection? Researchers do not exclude that our star may also be capable of such cruel extremes.

At the same time, Notsu noted that huge coronal mass ejections could have been common in the early years of the solar system. They could even, in theory, have had influence in shaping the modern appearance of planets such as Earth and Mars.

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Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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