Record starburst from a nearby star recorded at multiple wavelengths for the first time

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“We had never seen an M dwarf flare at millimeter wavelengths before 2018, so it was not known whether there was corresponding emission at other wavelengths,” said Meredith MacGregor, an assistant professor at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) and Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) at CU Boulder, and the lead author on the study. To better understand the flares on Proxima Centauri— a red dwarf star located roughly four light-years or 20 trillion miles from Earth— a team of astronomers observed the star for 40 hours over the course of several months in 2019 using nine telescopes on the ground and in space.

In May 2019, Proxima Centauri ejected a violent flare that lasted just seven seconds, but generated a surge in both ultraviolet and millimeter wavelengths. The flare was characterized by a strong, impulsive spike never before seen at these wavelengths. The event was recorded by five of the nine telescopes involved in the study, including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in ultraviolet, and ALMA in millimeter wavelengths. The star is prominent in discussions surrounding the prospect for life around red dwarf stars because of its proximity to Earth, and because it is host to Proxima Centauri b, a planet that resides in the star’s habitable zone.

Powerful flares from our Sun are uncommon, occurring only a few times in a solar cycle. According to MacGregor, that’s not the case on Proxima Centauri. “Proxima Centauri’s planets are getting hit by something like this not once in a century, but at least once a day, if not several times a day,” said MacGregor. “If there was life on the planet nearest to Proxima Centauri, it would have to look very different than anything on Earth,” MacGregor said. “A human being on this planet would have a bad time.”

“In the past, we didn’t know that stars could flare in the millimeter range, so this is the first time we have gone looking for millimeter flares,” said MacGregor, adding that the new observations could help researchers gather more information about how stars generate flares, which can have an impact on nearby life. “The star went from normal to 14,000 times brighter when seen in ultraviolet wavelengths over the span of a few seconds,” said MacGregor, adding that similar behavior was captured in millimeter wavelengths by ALMA at the same time.

“We want to see what surprises this star has in store for us to help us understand the physics of stellar flaring,” said MacGregor. Future observations will focus on unveiling the many secrets behind Proxima Centauri’s flares in the hopes of uncovering the internal mechanisms that cause such powerful outbursts.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). The results of the study are reported today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. About ALMA

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