On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series of explosions was as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded.
"We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks," said Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who gave a presentation on the "superflare" at the August meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division. "This was a very complex event."
At its peak, the flare reached temperatures of 360 million degrees Fahrenheit (200 million Celsius), more than 12 times hotter than the center of the sun.
In April 2014, NASA's Swift mission detected a massive superflare from a red dwarf star in the binary system DG CVn, located about 60 light-years away. Astronomers Rachel Osten of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Stephen Drake of NASA Goddard discuss this remarkable event.
The "superflare" came from one of the stars in a close binary system known as DG Canum Venaticorum, or DG CVn for short, located about 60 light-years away. Both stars are dim red dwarfs with masses and sizes about one-third of our sun's. They orbit each other at about three times Earth's average distance from the sun, which is too close for Swift to determine which star erupted.
"This system is poorly studied because it wasn't on our watch list of stars capable of producing large flares," said Rachel Osten, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and a deputy project scientist for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, now under construction. "We had no idea DG CVn had this in it."
Most of the stars lying within about 100 light-years of the solar system are, like the sun, middle-aged. But a thousand or so young red dwarfs born elsewhere drift through this region, and these stars give astronomers their best opportunity for detailed study of the high-energy activity that typically accompanies stellar youth. Astronomers estimate DG CVn was born about 30 million years ago, which makes it less than 0.7 percent the age of the solar system.
Stars erupt with flares for the same reason the sun does. Around active regions of the star's atmosphere, magnetic fields become twisted and distorted. Much like winding up a rubber band, these allow the fields to accumulate energy. Eventually a process called magnetic reconnection destabilizes the fields, resulting in the explosive release of the stored energy we see as a flare. The outburst emits radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to visible, ultraviolet and X-ray light.
At 5:07 p.m. EDT on April 23, the rising tide of X-rays from DG CVn's superflare triggered Swift's Burst Alert Telescope (BAT). Within several seconds of detecting a strong burst of radiation, the BAT calculates an initial position, decides whether the activity merits investigation by other instruments and, if so, sends the position to the spacecraft. In this case, Swift turned to observe the source in greater detail, and, at the same time, notified astronomers around the globe that a powerful outburst was in progress.
"For about three minutes after the BAT trigger, the superflare's X-ray brightness was greater than the combined luminosity of both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions," noted Goddard's Adam Kowalski, who is leading a detailed study on the event. "Flares this large from red dwarfs are exceedingly rare."
The star's brightness in visible and ultraviolet light, measured both by ground-based observatories and Swift's Optical/Ultraviolet Telescope, rose by 10 and 100 times, respectively. The initial flare's X-ray output, as measured by Swift's X-Ray Telescope, puts even the most intense solar activity recorded to shame.
DG CVn, a binary consisting of two red dwarf stars shown here in an artist's rendering, unleashed a series of powerful flares seen by NASA's Swift. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under typical conditions.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger
The largest solar explosions are classified as extraordinary, or X class, solar flares based on their X-ray emission. "The biggest flare we've ever seen from the sun occurred in November 2003 and is rated as X 45," explained Drake. "The flare on DG CVn, if viewed from a planet the same distance as Earth is from the sun, would have been roughly 10,000 times greater than this, with a rating of about X 100,000."
But it wasn't over yet. Three hours after the initial outburst, with X-rays on the downswing, the system exploded with another flare nearly as intense as the first. These first two explosions may be an example of "sympathetic" flaring often seen on the sun, where an outburst in one active region triggers a blast in another.
Over the next 11 days, Swift detected a series of successively weaker blasts. Osten compares the dwindling series of flares to the cascade of aftershocks following a major earthquake. All told, the star took a total of 20 days to settle back to its normal level of X-ray emission.
How can a star just a third the size of the sun produce such a giant eruption? The key factor is its rapid spin, a crucial ingredient for amplifying magnetic fields. The flaring star in DG CVn rotates in under a day, about 30 or more times faster than our sun. The sun also rotated much faster in its youth and may well have produced superflares of its own, but, fortunately for us, it no longer appears capable of doing so.
Astronomers are now analyzing data from the DG CVn flares to better understand the event in particular and young stars in general. They suspect the system likely unleashes numerous smaller but more frequent flares and plan to keep tabs on its future eruptions with the help of NASA's Swift.
A multidirectional `perfect paraxial’ cloak using four lenses. From a continuous range of viewing angles, the hand remains cloaked, and the grids seen through the device match the background on the wall (about 2 m away), in color, spacing, shifts, and magnification. Credit: J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester
There've been many high tech approaches to cloaking and the basic idea behind these is to take light and have it pass around something as if it isn't there, often using high-tech or exotic materials," said John Howell, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester. Forgoing the specialized components, Howell and graduate student Joseph Choi developed a combination of four standard lenses that keeps the object hidden as the viewer moves up to several degrees away from the optimal viewing position.
"This is the first device that we know of that can do three-dimensional, continuously multidirectional cloaking, which works for transmitting rays in the visible spectrum," said Choi, a PhD student at Rochester's Institute of Optics.
Many cloaking designs work fine when you look at an object straight on, but if you move your viewpoint even a little, the object becomes visible, explains Howell. Choi added that previous cloaking devices can also cause the background to shift drastically, making it obvious that the cloaking device is present.
In order to both cloak an object and leave the background undisturbed, the researchers determined the lens type and power needed, as well as the precise distance to separate the four lenses. To test their device, they placed the cloaked object in front of a grid background. As they looked through the lenses and changed their viewing angle by moving from side to side, the grid shifted accordingly as if the cloaking device was not there. There was no discontinuity in the grid lines behind the cloaked object, compared to the background, and the grid sizes (magnification) matched.
The Rochester Cloak can be scaled up as large as the size of the lenses, allowing fairly large objects to be cloaked. And, unlike some other devices, it's broadband so it works for the whole visible spectrum of light, rather than only for specific frequencies.
Their simple configuration improves on other cloaking devices, but it's not perfect. "This cloak bends light and sends it through the center of the device, so the on-axis region cannot be blocked or cloaked," said Choi. This means that the cloaked region is shaped like a doughnut. He added that they have slightly more complicated designs that solve the problem. Also, the cloak has edge effects, but these can be reduced when sufficiently large lenses are used.
In a new paper submitted to the journal Optics Express and available on arXiv.org, Howell and Choi provide a mathematical formalism for this type of cloaking that can work for angles up to 15 degrees, or more. They use a technique called ABCD matrices that describes how light bends when going through lenses, mirrors, or other optical elements.
While their device is not quite like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, Howell had some thoughts about potential applications, including using cloaking to effectively let a surgeon "look through his hands to what he is actually operating on," he said. The same principles could be applied to a truck to allow drivers to see through blind spots on their vehicles.
Howell became interested in creating simple cloaking devices with off-the-shelf materials while working on a holiday project with his children. Together with his 14 year-old son and Choi, he recently published a paper about some of the possibilities, and also demonstrated simple cloaking with mirrors, like magicians would use, in a brief vidEO