Little Star Makes Big Mess

May 19, 2008 12:42pm

It is a good thing that we don’t know of any planets circling a star called EV Lacertae.  If there are, they would be really unpleasant places. NASA says the little star — a so-called red dwarf — has given off one of the brightest solar flares ever observed. The Swift satellite, an orbiting observatory with an X-ray telescope, caught it in the act on April 25, and artist Casey Reed has done the picture you see above, released today by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. EV Lacertae isn’t much of a star.  It’s about a third as massive as our Sun, and gives off about one percent as much light.  It’s also believed to be young — only a few hundred million years — so it hasn’t had much time to form a solar system. Which is why this is comforting on a Monday.  "Here’s a small, cool star that shot off a monster flare," said Rachel Osten of NASA and the University of Maryland in a statement.  "Flares like this would deplete the atmospheres of life-bearing planets, sterilizing their surfaces." Our Sun gives off flares all the time — and is the only source of flares brighter than the one from EV Lacertae.  But we’re protected by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field.  Perhaps more useful, EV Lacertae is 16 light-years away (about 90 trillion miles), while the Sun is 8 light-minutes. Of course, there could be planets circling EV Lacertae, in which case this story would be much less pleasant.

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