Roughly 4.6 billion years old, the sun is already a mature star that is in a relatively quiet, stable state.
However, this state of calm doesn't necessarily mean that it's not prone to an outburst once in a while.
Even Mature Stars Produce Superflares
Superflares are incredible bursts of energy that are so powerful that it's visible hundreds of light-years away. It is known to occur in young, volatile stars that rotate extremely rapidly.
Flares commonly occur in the sun, but superflares are hundreds to thousands times more powerful than the largest known regular flares.
However, new research published in the Astrophysical Journal showed evidence that even aging, quiet stars like the sun could produce solar flares. While it's not likely to occur often, superflares are predicted once in every few thousand years.
To reach their conclusion, the team of researchers analyzed data from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. With these instruments, they identified superflares that occurred in 43 stars resembling the sun. Then they subjected these events to statistical analysis.
"Young stars have superflares once every week or so," said lead author Yuta Notsu, who is a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "For the sun, it's once every few thousand years on average."
The superflares that scientists have observed are brilliant cosmic shows that light up the sky. Up close to the Earth, it's not expected to be as pleasing.
What Does This Mean For Earth?
Superflares from the sun aren't expected to be frequent, but it's still important to be cautious. In fact, the authors say that one could occur a few generations down the line.
"Our study shows that superflares are rare events," Notsu explained. "But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so."
If a superflare does occur, Earth sits squarely on the path of high-energy radiation. The consequences of such an event could be catastrophic, including disruptions on technology all over the world. In turn, these disruptions could lead to widespread blackouts and shorted communication satellites.
He added that he believed that the sun's next superflare is a matter of when, not if.
Fortunately, there's ample time left before the next one. Humans could still prepare for potential consequences as well as figure out a way to defend technological and communication systems.