Located just 471 light-years away, the star SDSS J013333.08+003223.7 is a tiny cool dwarf star that in a brief moment gave off ten times the light of our Sun. This star is roughly 1/3 the mass of our Sun and is typically about 3000 degrees cooler. These kinds of small stars are some of the most common in the universe, and they are also some of the longest-lived. We also know small stars can have planets, raising the question, “Can these small, cool but very common and long-lasting stars host planets with life?”
To answer this question, we need to understand how stable they are.
Magnetic fields are one of the hardest things to understand in science. Trying to model how magnetic fields change and misbehave from a theoretical perspective just isn’t possible yet. Instead, we need to watch a lot of different stars to see what kinds of magnetic field driven flares occur. This kind of survey is currently being conducted by a collaboration of Chinese and French researchers using the Xinglong Observatory. This little star’s amazing flare lasted nearly four hours, and if the star had habitable worlds in the direction the flare was pointed, they would have been blasted with dangerous amounts of solar radiation during this event.
Because these stars are so small and faint, any habitable world would need to be snuggled up close to the star for warmth. This closeness puts them in considerable peril if a flare goes off. And with this research, we know just how bad a flare can be.
The next big question is, how common are giant flares? If they are sufficiently rare, we can imagine a society evolving on a habitable world, and developing protection measures to survive these flares. If the flares are common, however, life could be knocked back to its starting block with each new flare.
We hope the survey is able to answer these questions about flare frequency and power quickly, but until then, science has provided an amazing scenario for fiction to explore.