What is Alpha Centauri?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Earth aside from our own. It is a trio of stars: Alpha Centauri, Beta Centauri, and Proxima Centauri. The first two are often referred to as Centauri A and Centauri B while the last is Centauri C. Alpha Centauri is a yellowish-white dwarf star with about 10% greater mass than our Sun. Beta Centauri is slightly smaller, at about 90% solar mass, and produces less heat, giving off an orangeish-yellow-white glow. Proxima Centauri is a small red dwarf, orbiting the other two at a great distance. This red dwarf is the closest star to us aside from the Sun.

Nuclear fission rockets such as those tested under Project NERVA in the 1960s would enable a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri in a few hundred years rather than the thousands of years it would take a chemical rocket to make the same trip.
Nuclear fission rockets such as those tested under Project NERVA in the 1960s would enable a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri in a few hundred years rather than the thousands of years it would take a chemical rocket to make the same trip.

The Centauri system gets its name from its location in the constellation Centaurus, the centaur. The entire system is 4.2 - 4.4 light years away from the Earth. A starship traveling at 10% the speed of light, perhaps powered by a nuclear pulse engine, would reach Alpha Centauri in only about 50 years. It is plausible that the system has its own planets, though none have been detected yet.

It has been theorized that a high-powered laser could be used to increase the speed by which a spacecraft with solar sails could reach Alpha Centauri.
It has been theorized that a high-powered laser could be used to increase the speed by which a spacecraft with solar sails could reach Alpha Centauri.

Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri have an eccentric orbit around each other, coming as close as 11 AU (astronomical units, or Earth-Sun distances) and separating as far as 35 AU. This is comparable to the distance between the Sun and Saturn when closest, and between the Sun and Pluto at most distant. Both stars are about five to six billion years old, just like our Sun.

The red dwarf Proxima Centauri, the outcast, weighs only 1/10th of the Sun and accordingly burns its nuclear fuel much slower, meaning it is less bright and hot. In fact, the only reason we can observe this red dwarf at all is that it is located so close to our home system. Proxima Centauri orbits Beta and Alpha Centauri at a distance of 11,000 AU, or about 0.21 light years, which is 1/20th of the way between the Sun and Alpha Centauri. At first, we were not even certain if Proxima should be considered part of the same star system, but observations have shown that it orbits the binary center and shares approximately the same motion through space as the rest of the star system.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon58463

The two stars making the binary portion of Alpha Centauri are no Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. Beta Centauri is a hot blue star about 5 degrees west of Alpha Centauri and is much more distant. There is no connection between the two stars with the exception that they are in the same constellation, Centaurus (the Centaur).

Alpha Centauri forms one forefoot of the Centaur and Beta Centauri forms the other forefoot of the Centaur. The two stars that form the binary of Alpha Centauri are Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B.

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