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The turbulent star Proxima Centauri (our Sun's closest neighbor) has just ejected its largest solar flare ever reported. 

An analysis of the fantastic flare, led by a team of researchers at CU Boulder in Colorado, was published this week in the online journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study is titled "Discovery of an Extremely Short Duration Flare from Proxima Centauri Using Millimeter through Far-ultraviolet Observations."

Solar Flare/Proxima Centauri
(Photo : NRAO/S. Dagnello)
Artist's conception of a violent flare erupting from the star Proxima Centauri.

In a recent press release, University astrophysicist Meredith MacGregor said that Proxima Centauri may be a small, dim star. But don't be fooled by its small size and soft radiance. It has at least two planets, Proxima Centauri a and Proxima Centauri b. It is 20 trillion miles above our own light. Proxima Centauri is a Red Dwarf that is about one-eighth the mass of our own star and is four light-years distant.

Conducive Habitability?

MacGregor is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) and Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS).

Her team used an array of nine field telescopes and one orbital observatory to observe Proxima Centauri for around 40 hours. Proxima Centauri ejected a massive radiation plume during the research, making it one of the largest ever seen in the Milky Way.

The star, according to MacGregor, went from average to 14,000 times brighter in a matter of seconds when ultraviolet wavelengths. MacGregor said if life existed on the planet closest to Proxima Centauri, it would have to be somewhat different from Earth's. The researcher added that a human being will have a difficult time on it.

For decades, scientists have been looking at Proxima Centauri as a possible home outside of our own solar system. Proxima Centauri b, one of the exoplanets, is Earth-like and is located in a "habitable region" of temperatures conducive to the creation of liquid water.

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"A lot of the exoplanets that we've found so far are around these types of stars," she explained. "But the catch is that they're way more active than our sun. They flare much more frequently and intensely."

Humongous Solar Flare

MacGregor and her team pointed their astronomical instruments at Proxima Centauri for a total of 40 hours over several months in 2019 to capture this unusual occurrence. They used the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the Hubble Space Telescope. Five of the nine photographers were lucky enough to catch the spectacular flare and its wide spectrum of radiation.

MacGregor said it's the first time ever they have seen this sort of multi-wavelength coverage of a stellar flare.

The CU Boulder team could catch one of the most accurate solar flares ever seen in the Milky Way using this layered technique. On May 1, 2019, a 7-second incident set a new milestone. It did not produce a large amount of visible light, instead emitting ultraviolet and radio waves, commonly known as "millimeter" radiation.

"We didn't know stars could flare in the millimeter range in the past, so this is the first time we've been looking for millimeter flares," she said.

The flare seen on the star was almost 100 times larger than any flare seen on Earth's sun. This kind of energy has the ability to destroy a planet's atmosphere and blanket life forms with lethal radiation.

MacGregor said solar flares strike the planets of Proxima Centauri not once in a century, but at least once a day, if not many times a day. She added there would almost certainly be even more bizarre kinds of flares that explain new types of phenomena that they haven't considered before.

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