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Alpha Centauri: Everything Known to Astronomers


Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to us beyond the Sun, hiding numerous secrets and mysteries. It evokes a lot of emotions and interest among astronomy and space enthusiasts.

Alpha Centauri (αC) is the name of a system consisting of three stars that are closest to our planet. The distance between them and Earth is approximately 4.37 light-years. This means that light from them reaches our planet in more than four years. This system consists of two bright Sun-like stars – Alpha Centauri A and B, and the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, which is our nearest neighbor in space.

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The Alpha Centauri system is undoubtedly an exciting subject for astronomy and astrobiology research. The proximity of this star system makes it the primary candidate for searching for life beyond the Solar System. It may turn out that we are not alone in the cosmos, and that our neighbors are beings inhabiting one of the planets in the Alpha Centauri system. What do we need to know about the AC system? Here are a few interesting facts about our cosmic neighbor.

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It’s not one star, but three

Although the system appears as a single bright star in the sky, Alpha Centauri is actually a system of three stars: Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. The first two form a binary system, orbiting around a common center of mass, while the third is a red dwarf, orbiting them at a much greater distance.

The orbital period of Alpha Centauri A and B is approximately 80 years, and the distance between them varies from 11 to 36 astronomical units. One astronomical unit (AU) equals the distance between the Earth and the Sun, approximately 149 million kilometers. Both stars are slightly larger and brighter than our Sun and are similar in age – around 5 billion years.

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Proxima Centauri is much dimmer than the other stars in the system. Its mass is about 12% of the Sun’s mass, and its surface temperature is approximately 3000°C. Proxima Centauri is located at a distance of approximately 13 astronomical units from the Alpha Centauri A and B pair. This means that its gravitational influence on them is very small. It is not certain whether Proxima Centauri is permanently bound to the Alpha Centauri system or only temporarily.

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Alpha Centauri is very close, but still very far away

As mentioned earlier, Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to us beyond the Sun. Its distance from Earth is approximately 4.37 light-years, which means that light from it reaches us in more than four years.

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In cosmic terms, this is very little, but for humans, it’s a lot. With the current level of technology, it would take us thousands of years to travel to Alpha Centauri.

Alpha Centauri has a planet in the life zone

The AC system is of great interest to astronomers and astrobiologists because at least two planets have been discovered within its confines. One of them, Proxima b, orbits around Proxima Centauri and is located in the so-called habitable zone, where the temperature allows for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface. The mass of this planet is approximately 1.3 times that of Earth, and it orbits its star every 11 days. However, it is unknown whether it has an atmosphere and whether it is conducive to life.

Proxima b is not the only planet in the Alpha Centauri system. There is also Proxima d, discovered in 2022, but it orbits very close to the star. In 2012, it was announced the discovery of another Earth-like planet in this star system, orbiting around Alpha Centauri B, but later it was recognized as a measurement error.

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The system has dust and ice belts

Around the stars of Alpha Centauri, there are also dusty and icy belts, similar to the Kuiper Belt in our Solar System. They are located at distances ranging from a few to several tens of astronomical units. They may contain tiny celestial bodies or even larger asteroids.

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Alfa Centauri has various names

The name Alpha Centauri comes from Johann Bayer’s designation, who named the stars in this constellation with Greek letters. Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the Centaurus constellation, hence its name. This name is used for the entire star system as well as its brightest component – Alpha Centauri A.

Alpha Centauri A also has other names originating from various traditions and languages. One of them is Rigil Kentaurus or Rigil Kent, derived from the Arabic Rijl Qanturis, meaning “the foot of the centaur,” referring to the star’s position in the constellation. Another name is Toliman, also derived from the Arabic word al-Zulman, meaning “the ostriches.” It’s unclear why this star received such a name.

alpha centauri

Alpha Centauri B does not have its own names and is designated as the second star of the Alpha Centauri system. The third star of the system, Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri, was named by South African astronomer Robert Innes in 1915 when he discovered this star closest to the Sun. He proposed to name it Proxima Centaurus, which translates from Latin as “the nearest Centaur [star].” Later, this name was adopted by the International Astronomical Union.

The first person to notice that Alpha Centauri is a binary system was the French Jesuit Jean Richaud in 1689. He observed a comet passing by Earth and accidentally noticed that Alpha Centauri consists of two closely spaced stars. At that time, it was the second known binary system after Acrux in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

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The system is the subject of many scientific and engineering projects

Due to its proximity and potential for the search for life, Alpha Centauri is the subject of many scientific and engineering projects. They aim to study it more closely and understand whether there are conditions favorable for life. One such project is Breakthrough Starshot, which involves sending a fleet of nanoprobes. The probes will operate on light sails and could reach Alpha Centauri within 20-30 years. These sails will be powered by laser pulses with a power of 100 gigawatts, allowing them to achieve speeds of about 20% of the speed of light.

alpha centauri

Another idea involves using nuclear fusion as a source of energy for a spacecraft that could carry more scientific instruments and maintain communication with Earth. Such a spacecraft would have a mass comparable to a van and could reach speeds of about 5% of the speed of light. However, it would take about 400 years to reach Alpha Centauri and 500 years to reach the orbit of the planet Proxima b.

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Scientists are also trying to observe the Alpha Centauri system using ground-based and orbital telescopes. The Breakthrough Initiatives, initiated in 2015 by Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, are a program of scientific and technological research into the existence of life in the Universe, including questions about the uniqueness of intelligent life on Earth, the population of worlds in the Milky Way, and the possibility of interstellar travel. This program began collaborating with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 2017 to search for potentially habitable planets in the zones around the stars Alpha Centauri A and B. To do this, they use the VISIR instrument (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for Mid-Infrared) on the Very Large Telescope ESO in Chile.

Another project is NEAR (Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region), which aims to detect Earth-sized planets around Alpha Centauri A and B using optical interferometry methods.

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Alpha Centauri is visible only from the southern hemisphere

Alpha Centauri is located in the southern hemisphere of the sky. Therefore, this planetary system is not visible from most areas of the northern hemisphere.

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It is best observed from places near the equator, where it is visible low above the horizon. To see Alpha Centauri, you would need to travel further south than 40 degrees north latitude.

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Alpha Centauri is the inspiration for many works of culture and art

Due to its proximity and potential for the existence of life in this star system, the topic of Alpha Centauri is often reflected in many works of culture and art, especially in science fiction literature and cinema. Examples of such works include Stanislaw Lem’s novel “The Magellan Cloud”, James Cameron’s film “Avatar”, the computer game “Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri”, and numerous TV series.

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All these works of art are nothing but the imagination of artists, their vision of such a close yet very distant star system from Earth.

Alpha Centauri still remains a mystery to astronomers and other scientists. Studying the closest star system to us may provide scientists with answers to many questions about the creation and laws of existence of the Solar System. But most importantly, the search for the existence of a planet similar to our Earth. Such a discovery would enable humanity to find a potentially habitable new home. And this opens up new perspectives, new scientific research. The development of science and technology never stands still. What once seemed like science fiction becomes reality!

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Yuri Svitlyk
Yuri Svitlyk
Son of the Carpathian Mountains, unrecognized genius of mathematics, Microsoft "lawyer", practical altruist, levopravosek
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