Solar 'superflares' millions of times stronger than anything today may have sparked life on Earth

According to recent study, powerful solar storms may have brought the first components of life to Earth.

According to a recent research, massive superflares from a young, hyperactive sun may have ignited the origin of life on Earth.

Scientists discovered that a mixture of gases present in Earth's early atmosphere forms considerable amounts of amino acids and carboxylic acids — the building blocks for proteins and all organic life — when charged particles from the solar wind are fired at the mixture.

Since the 1800s, when it was hypothesized that life may have started in an ancient chemical soup known as a "warm little pond," scientists have been perplexed by the circumstances that gave rise to life on Earth. In the 1950s, research involving artificial lightning exposure to gas combinations of methane, ammonia, water, and molecular hydrogen revealed that 20 distinct amino acids were produced as a result of the procedure.

But the situation has become more difficult in the intervening years. Scientists discovered that the early Earth's atmosphere included more carbon dioxide and molecular nitrogen and less ammonia and methane than previously believed. Both of these gases require far more energy to disintegrate than lightning alone could supply.

The crucial kick-start for life on Earth may have been delivered by cosmic rays from very violent superflares, according to a recent study that was just published on April 28 in the journal Life.

As the primary study author, Kensei Kobayashi is a professor of chemistry at Yokohama National University in Japan. "Most investigators ignore galactic cosmic rays because they require specialized equipment, like particle accelerators," he stated in a release. "I had access to several of them close to our facilities, which was fortunate."

Due to the passage of electrical charges in the molten plasma that flows along and beneath the surfaces of stars, these objects produce strong magnetic fields. These magnetic field lines can occasionally form kinks before abruptly snapping, unleashing energy in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are explosive jets of solar material.

The collision of this solar material, which largely consists of electrons, protons, and alpha particles, with the magnetic field of Earth causes a geomagnetic storm, which stirs up molecules in our atmosphere to produce the northern lights. Even though the 1859 Carrington Event was the biggest solar storm in recorded history, with energy equivalent to 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs, it was overshadowed by the force of a superflare, which may be hundreds to thousands of times more powerful.

These superflares normally only occur once every 100 years or so, but it's possible that wasn't always the case. Superflares burst from the sun's surface every three to ten days during Earth's first 100 million years, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Nature Geoscience that examined data from NASA's Kepler mission, which between 2009 and 2018 collected data on Earth-like planets and their stars.

The researchers in the current study mixed carbon dioxide, molecular nitrogen, water, and different concentrations of methane into mixes of gases they may anticipate to find in our early atmosphere in order to see the role superflares may have had in producing amino acids on ancient Earth. Then, the researchers either ignited the gas mixtures with simulated lightning or shot them with protons from a tiny particle accelerator (known as a tandem accelerator) to trigger the formation of amino acids and carboxylic acids, both of which are crucial chemical building blocks for life.

The amino acids and carboxylic acids produced by both the protons and the lightning strikes rose when the methane concentration was raised, however the proton combination only required 0.5% methane concentration to produce them at detectable levels while the lightning discharges required 15%.

"And even at 15% methane, the production rate of the amino acids by lightning is a million times less than by protons," said research co-author Vladimir Airapetian, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and co-author of a 2016 Nature Geosciences study. Lightning never occurs in cold weather, and the sun in the early Earth's history was quite dim. Although solar particles appear to be more plausible than lightning at the moment, it is not to suggest that it couldn't have come from lightning.