Proxima Centauri

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Coordinates: Celestia.png 14h 29m 42.9487s, −62° 40′ 46.141″

Proxima Centauri
New shot of Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbour.jpg
Proxima Centauri as seen by Hubble
Observation data
Epoch J2000.0        Equinox J2000.0 (ICRS)
Constellation Centaurus
Pronunciation /ˌprɒksɪməsɛnˈtɔːr/ , [1] [2]
Right ascension  14h 29m 42.94853s [3]
Declination −62° 40 46.1631 [3]
Apparent magnitude  (V)10.43 - 11.11 [4]
Characteristics
Evolutionary stage Main sequence red dwarf
Spectral type M5.5Ve [5]
Apparent magnitude  (U)14.21 [6]
Apparent magnitude  (B)12.95 [6]
Apparent magnitude  (V)11.13 [6]
Apparent magnitude  (R)9.45 [6]
Apparent magnitude  (I)7.41 [6]
Apparent magnitude  (J)5.357±0.023 [7]
Apparent magnitude  (H)4.835±0.057 [7]
Apparent magnitude  (K)4.384±0.033 [7]
U−B color index 1.26
B−V color index 1.82
V−R color index 1.68
R−I color index 2.04
J−H color index 0.522
J−K color index 0.973
Variable type UV Ceti ("flare star") [4]
Astrometry
Radial velocity (Rv)−22.204±0.032 [8]  km/s
Proper motion (μ)RA: −3775.75 [3]   mas/yr
Dec.: 765.54 [3]   mas/yr
Parallax (π)768.5 ± 0.2 [9]   mas
Distance 4.244 ± 0.001  ly
(1.3012 ± 0.0003  pc)
Absolute magnitude  (MV)15.60 [10]
Orbit [8]
PrimaryAlpha Centauri AB
CompanionProxima Centauri
Period (P)547000+6600
−4000
yr
Semi-major axis (a)8700+700
−400
  AU
Eccentricity (e)0.50+0.08
−0.09
Inclination (i)107.6+1.8
−2.0
°
Longitude of the node (Ω)126±5°
Periastron epoch (T)+283+59
−41
Argument of periastron (ω)
(secondary)
72.3+8.7
−6.6
°
Details
Mass 0.1221±0.0022 [8]   M
Radius 0.1542±0.0045 [8]   R
Luminosity (bolometric)0.0017 [11]   L
Luminosity (visual, LV)0.00005 [nb 1]   L
Surface gravity (log g)5.20±0.23 [12]   cgs
Temperature 3042±117 [12]   K
Metallicity [Fe/H]0.21 [13]   dex
Rotation 82.6±0.1 [14]  days
Rotational velocity (v sin i)< 0.1 [14]  km/s
Age 4.85 [15]   Gyr
Other designations
Alpha Centauri C, CCDM  J14396-6050C, GCTP  3278.00, GJ  551, HIP  70890, LFT  1110, LHS  49, LPM  526, LTT  5721, NLTT  37460, V645 Centauri [16]
Database references
SIMBAD data
ARICNS data

Proxima Centauri is a small, low-mass star located about 4.244 light-year s (1.301  pc ) [9] away from the Sun in the southern constellation of Centaurus. [16] Its Latin name means the "nearest [star] of Centaurus". [1] This object was discovered in 1915 by Robert Innes and is the nearest-known star to the Sun. [15] With a quiescent apparent magnitude of 11.13, [6] it is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Proxima Centauri forms a third member of the Alpha Centauri system, being identified as component Alpha Centauri C, and currently has a separation of about 12,950  AU (1.94  trillion   km ) and an orbital period of 550,000 years. [8] At present Proxima is 2.18° to the southwest of the Alpha Centauri AB pair. [17]

Star An astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity

A star is type of astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun. Many other stars are visible to the naked eye from Earth during the night, appearing as a multitude of fixed luminous points in the sky due to their immense distance from Earth. Historically, the most prominent stars were grouped into constellations and asterisms, the brightest of which gained proper names. Astronomers have assembled star catalogues that identify the known stars and provide standardized stellar designations. However, most of the estimated 300 sextillion (3×1023) stars in the Universe are invisible to the naked eye from Earth, including all stars outside our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Light-year unit of length that light travels within one Earthyear; equal to just under 10 trillion kilometres (or about 6 trillion miles)

The light-year is a unit of length used to express astronomical distances and measures about 9.46 trillion kilometres (9.46 x 1012 km) or 5.88 trillion miles (5.88 x 1012 mi). As defined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a light-year is the distance that light travels in vacuum in one Julian year (365.25 days). Because it includes the word "year", the term light-year is sometimes misinterpreted as a unit of time.

Parsec unit of length used in astronomy

The parsec (symbol: pc) is a unit of length used to measure large distances to astronomical objects outside the Solar System. A parsec is defined as the distance at which one astronomical unit subtends an angle of one arcsecond, which corresponds to 648000/π astronomical units. One parsec is equal to about 3.26 light-years or 31 trillion kilometres (31×1012 km) or 19 trillion miles (19×1012 mi). The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 1.3 parsecs (4.2 light-years) from the Sun. Most of the stars visible to the unaided eye in the night sky are within 500 parsecs of the Sun.

Contents

This is a red dwarf star with a mass about an eighth of the Sun's mass (M), and its average density is about 33 times that of the Sun. [nb 2] Because of Proxima Centauri's proximity to Earth, its angular diameter can be measured directly as about one-seventh the diameter of the Sun. [15] Although it has a very low average luminosity, Proxima is a flare star that undergoes random dramatic increases in brightness because of magnetic activity. [18] The star's magnetic field is created by convection throughout the stellar body, and the resulting flare activity generates a total X-ray emission similar to that produced by the Sun. [19] The mixing of the fuel at Proxima Centauri's core through convection and its relatively low energy-production rate mean that it will be a main-sequence star for another four trillion years, [20] or nearly 300 times the current age of the universe. [21]

Red dwarf An informal category of small, cool stars on the main sequence

A red dwarf is a small and cool star on the main sequence, of M spectral type. Red dwarfs range in mass from about 0.075 to about 0.50 solar mass and have a surface temperature of less than 4,000 K. Sometimes K-type main-sequence stars, with masses between 0.50-0.8 solar mass, are also included.

Solar mass standard unit of mass in astronomy

The solar mass (M) is a standard unit of mass in astronomy, equal to approximately 2×1030 kg. It is used to indicate the masses of other stars, as well as clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. It is equal to the mass of the Sun (denoted by the solar symbol ⊙︎). This equates to about two nonillion (two quintillion in the long scale) kilograms:

The density, or more precisely, the volumetric mass density, of a substance is its mass per unit volume. The symbol most often used for density is ρ, although the Latin letter D can also be used. Mathematically, density is defined as mass divided by volume:

In 2016, the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, [22] [23] [24] a planet orbiting the star at a distance of roughly 0.05 AU (7.5 million km) with an orbital period of approximately 11.2 Earth days. Its estimated mass is at least 1.3 times that of the Earth. The equilibrium temperature of Proxima b is estimated to be within the range of where water could exist as liquid on its surface, thus placing it within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, [22] [25] [26] although because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf and a flare star, whether it could support life is disputed. [27] [28] Previous searches for orbiting companions had ruled out the presence of brown dwarfs and supermassive planets. [29] [30]

European Southern Observatory intergovernmental research organization for ground-based astronomy

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), formally the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, is a 16-nation intergovernmental research organization for ground-based astronomy. Created in 1962, ESO has provided astronomers with state-of-the-art research facilities and access to the southern sky. The organisation employs about 730 staff members and receives annual member state contributions of approximately €162 million. Its observatories are located in northern Chile.

Proxima Centauri b extrasolar planet

Proxima Centauri b is an exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, which is the closest star to the Sun and part of a triple star system. It is located about 4.2 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus, making it the closest known exoplanet to the Solar System.

Planet Class of astronomical body directly orbiting a star or stellar remnant

A planet is an astronomical body orbiting a star or stellar remnant that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity, is not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion, and has cleared its neighbouring region of planetesimals.

Observation

In 1915, the Scottish astronomer Robert Innes, Director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa, discovered a star that had the same proper motion as Alpha Centauri. [31] [32] [33] [34] He suggested that it be named Proxima Centauri [35] (actually Proxima Centaurus). [36] In 1917, at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch astronomer Joan Voûte measured the star's trigonometric parallax at 0.755 ±0.028 and determined that Proxima Centauri was approximately the same distance from the Sun as Alpha Centauri. It was also found to be the lowest-luminosity star known at the time. [37] An equally accurate parallax determination of Proxima Centauri was made by American astronomer Harold L. Alden in 1928, who confirmed Innes's view that it is closer, with a parallax of 0.783 ±0.005 . [32] [35]

Robert T. A. Innes British astronomer

Robert Thorburn Ayton Innes FRSE FRAS was a Scottish astronomer best known for discovering Proxima Centauri in 1915, and numerous binary stars. He was also the first astronomer to have seen the Great January Comet of 1910, on 12 January. He was the founding director of a meteorological observatory in Johannesburg, which was later converted to an astronomical observatory and renamed to Union Observatory. He was the first Union Astronomer. Innes House, designed by Herbert Baker, built as his residence at the observatory, today houses the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers.

Union Observatory decommissioned astronomical observatory

Union Observatory also known as Johannesburg Observatory (078) is a defunct astronomical observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa that was operated between 1903 and 1971. It is located on Observatory Ridge, the city's highest point at 1,808 metres altitude in the suburb Observatory.

Johannesburg Place in Gauteng, South Africa

Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and one of the 50 largest urban areas in the world. It is the provincial capital and largest city of Gauteng, which is the wealthiest province in South Africa. While Johannesburg is not one of South Africa's three capital cities, it is the seat of the Constitutional Court. The city is located in the mineral-rich Witwatersrand range of hills and is the centre of large-scale gold and diamond trade.

Stars closest to the Sun, including Proxima Centauri PIA18003-NASA-WISE-StarsNearSun-20140425-2.png
Stars closest to the Sun, including Proxima Centauri

In 1951, American astronomer Harlow Shapley announced that Proxima Centauri is a flare star. Examination of past photographic records showed that the star displayed a measurable increase in magnitude on about 8% of the images, making it the most active flare star then known. [39] [40] The proximity of the star allows for detailed observation of its flare activity. In 1980, the Einstein Observatory produced a detailed X-ray energy curve of a stellar flare on Proxima Centauri. Further observations of flare activity were made with the EXOSAT and ROSAT satellites, and the X-ray emissions of smaller, solar-like flares were observed by the Japanese ASCA satellite in 1995. [41] Proxima Centauri has since been the subject of study by most X-ray observatories, including XMM-Newton and Chandra. [42]

Harlow Shapley American astronomer

Harlow Shapley was an American scientist, head of the Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952), and political activist during the latter New Deal and Fair Deal.

A flare star is a variable star that can undergo unpredictable dramatic increases in brightness for a few minutes. It is believed that the flares on flare stars are analogous to solar flares in that they are due to the magnetic energy stored in the stars' atmospheres. The brightness increase is across the spectrum, from X rays to radio waves. The first known flare stars were discovered in 1924. However, the best-known flare star is UV Ceti, discovered in 1948. Today similar flare stars are classified as UV Ceti type variable stars in variable star catalogs such as the General Catalogue of Variable Stars.

Einstein Observatory space observatory

Einstein Observatory (HEAO-2) was the first fully imaging X-ray telescope put into space and the second of NASA's three High Energy Astrophysical Observatories. Named HEAO B before launch, the observatory's name was changed to honor Albert Einstein upon its successfully attaining orbit.

In 2016, the International Astronomical Union organized a Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) to catalogue and standardize proper names for stars. [43] The WGSN approved the name Proxima Centauri for this star on August 21, 2016 and it is now so included in the List of IAU approved Star Names. [44]

International Astronomical Union Association of professional astronomers

The International Astronomical Union is an international association of professional astronomers, at the PhD level and beyond, active in professional research and education in astronomy. Among other activities, it acts as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations and names to celestial bodies and any surface features on them.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) established a Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) in May 2016 to catalog and standardize proper names for stars for the international astronomical community. It operates under Division C Education, Outreach and Heritage.

Because of Proxima Centauri's southern declination, it can only be viewed south of latitude 27° N. [nb 3] Red dwarfs such as Proxima Centauri are far too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Even from Alpha Centauri A or B, Proxima would only be seen as a fifth magnitude star. [45] [46] It has an apparent visual magnitude of 11, so a telescope with an aperture of at least 8 cm (3.1 in) is needed to observe it, even under ideal viewing conditions—under clear, dark skies with Proxima Centauri well above the horizon. [47]

In 2018, a superflare was observed from Proxima Centauri, the strongest flare ever seen. The optical brightness increased by a factor of 68 to approximately magnitude 6.8. It is estimated that similar flares occur around five times every year but are of such short duration, just a few minutes, that they have never been observed before. [48]

Physical properties

Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, because it belongs to the main sequence on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram and is of spectral class M5.5. M5.5 means that it falls in the low-mass end of M-type stars. [15] Its absolute visual magnitude, or its visual magnitude as viewed from a distance of 10 parsecs (33 ly), is 15.5. [49] Its total luminosity over all wavelengths is 0.17% that of the Sun, [11] although when observed in the wavelengths of visible light the eye is most sensitive to, it is only 0.0056% as luminous as the Sun. [50] More than 85% of its radiated power is at infrared wavelengths. [51] It has a regular activity cycle of starspots. [52]

Alpha centauri size.png
This illustration shows the comparative sizes of (from left to right) the Sun, α Centauri A, α Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri.
Alpha, Beta and Proxima Centauri (1).jpg
The two bright points are the Alpha Centauri system (left) and Beta Centauri (right). The faint red star in the centre of the red circle is Proxima Centauri.

In 2002, optical interferometry with the Very Large Telescope (VLTI) found that the angular diameter of Proxima Centauri was 1.02±0.08  mas . Because its distance is known, the actual diameter of Proxima Centauri can be calculated to be about 1/7 that of the Sun, or 1.5 times that of Jupiter. The star's mass, estimated from stellar theory, is 12.2%  M, or 129 Jupiter masses (MJ). [53] The mass has been calculated directly, although with less precision, from observations of microlensing events to be 0.150+0.062
−0.051
  M
. [54]

The mean density of main-sequence stars increase with decreasing mass, [55] and Proxima Centauri is no exception: it has a mean density of 47.1×103 kg/m3 (47.1 g/cm3), compared with the Sun's mean density of 1.411×103 kg/m3 (1.411 g/cm3). [nb 2]

A 1998 study of photometric variations indicates that Proxima Centauri rotates once every 83.5 days. [56] A subsequent time series analysis of chromospheric indicators in 2002 suggests a longer rotation period of 116.6±0.7 days. [57] This was subsequently ruled out in favor of a rotation period of 82.6±0.1 days. [14]

Because of its low mass, the interior of the star is completely convective, [58] causing energy to be transferred to the exterior by the physical movement of plasma rather than through radiative processes. This convection means that the helium ash left over from the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen does not accumulate at the core, but is instead circulated throughout the star. Unlike the Sun, which will only burn through about 10% of its total hydrogen supply before leaving the main sequence, Proxima Centauri will consume nearly all of its fuel before the fusion of hydrogen comes to an end. [20]

Convection is associated with the generation and persistence of a magnetic field. The magnetic energy from this field is released at the surface through stellar flares that briefly increase the overall luminosity of the star. These flares can grow as large as the star and reach temperatures measured as high as 27 million K [42] —hot enough to radiate X-rays. [59] Proxima Centauri's quiescent X-ray luminosity, approximately (4–16) × 1026  erg/s ((4–16) × 1019  W), is roughly equal to that of the much larger Sun. The peak X-ray luminosity of the largest flares can reach 1028 erg/s (1021 W). [42]

Proxima Centauri's chromosphere is active, and its spectrum displays a strong emission line of singly ionized magnesium at a wavelength of 280  nm. [60] About 88% of the surface of Proxima Centauri may be active, a percentage that is much higher than that of the Sun even at the peak of the solar cycle. Even during quiescent periods with few or no flares, this activity increases the corona temperature of Proxima Centauri to 3.5 million K, compared to the 2 million K of the Sun's corona. [61] Proxima Centauri's overall activity level is considered low compared to other red dwarfs, [19] which is consistent with the star's estimated age of 4.85 × 109 years, [15] since the activity level of a red dwarf is expected to steadily wane over billions of years as its stellar rotation rate decreases. [62] The activity level also appears to vary with a period of roughly 442 days, which is shorter than the solar cycle of 11 years. [63]

Proxima Centauri has a relatively weak stellar wind, no more than 20% of the mass loss rate of the solar wind. Because the star is much smaller than the Sun, the mass loss per unit surface area from Proxima Centauri may be eight times that from the solar surface. [64]

A red dwarf with the mass of Proxima Centauri will remain on the main sequence for about four trillion years. As the proportion of helium increases because of hydrogen fusion, the star will become smaller and hotter, gradually transforming from red to blue. Near the end of this period it will become significantly more luminous, reaching 2.5% of the Sun's luminosity (L) and warming up any orbiting bodies for a period of several billion years. When the hydrogen fuel is exhausted, Proxima Centauri will then evolve into a white dwarf (without passing through the red giant phase) and steadily lose any remaining heat energy. [20]

Distance and motion

Based on a parallax of 768.13±1.04  mas , published in 2014 by the Research Consortium On Nearby Stars, Proxima Centauri is about 4.246 light-year s (1.302  pc ; 268,500  AU ) from the Sun. [9] Previously published parallaxes include 772.33±2.42  mas in the Hipparcos Catalogue (1997) [65] and 768.77±0.37  mas using the Hubble Space Telescope 's Fine Guidance Sensors (1999). [10] From Earth's vantage point, Proxima is separated from Alpha Centauri by 2.18 degrees, [17] or four times the angular diameter of the full Moon. [66] Proxima also has a relatively large proper motion—moving 3.85  arcseconds per year across the sky. [67] It has a radial velocity toward the Sun of 22.2 km/s. [8]

Distances of the nearest stars from 20,000 years ago through 80,000 years in the future. Proxima Centauri is in yellow. Near-stars-past-future-en.svg
Distances of the nearest stars from 20,000 years ago through 80,000 years in the future. Proxima Centauri is in yellow.

Among the known stars, Proxima Centauri has been the closest star to the Sun for about 32,000 years and will be so for about another 25,000 years, after which Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B will alternate approximately every 79.91 years as the closest star to the Sun. In 2001, J. García-Sánchez et al. predicted that Proxima will make its closest approach to the Sun in approximately 26,700 years, coming within 3.11 ly (0.95 pc). [68] A 2010 study by V. V. Bobylev predicted a closest approach distance of 2.90 ly (0.89 pc) in about 27,400 years, [69] followed by a 2014 study by C. A. L. Bailer-Jones predicting a perihelion approach of 3.07 ly (0.94 pc) in roughly 26,710 years. [70] Proxima Centauri is orbiting through the Milky Way at a distance from the Galactic Centre that varies from 27 to 31  kly (8.3 to 9.5  kpc ), with an orbital eccentricity of 0.07. [71]

Orbital plot of Proxima Centauri as presently seen from Earth. Orbital plot of Proxima Centauri.jpg
Orbital plot of Proxima Centauri as presently seen from Earth.

Ever since the discovery of Proxima, it has been suspected to be a true companion of the Alpha Centauri binary star system. Data from the Hipparcos satellite, combined with ground-based observations, were consistent with the hypothesis that the three stars are a bound system. For this reason, Proxima is sometimes referred to as Alpha Centauri C. Kervella et al. (2017) used high-precision radial velocity measurements to determine with a high degree of confidence that Proxima and Alpha Centauri are gravitationally bound. [8] Proxima's orbital period around the Alpha Centauri AB barycenter is 547000+6600
−4000
years with an eccentricity of 0.5±0.08; it approaches Alpha Centauri to 4300+1100
−900
  AU
at periastron and retreats to 13000+300
−100
  AU
at apastron. [8] At present, Proxima is 12,947 ± 260 AU (1.94 ± 0.04 trillion km) from the Alpha Centauri AB barycenter, nearly to the farthest point in its orbit. [8]

Such a triple system can form naturally through a low-mass star being dynamically captured by a more massive binary of 1.5–2 M within their embedded star cluster before the cluster disperses. [73] However, more accurate measurements of the radial velocity are needed to confirm this hypothesis. [74] If Proxima was bound to the Alpha Centauri system during its formation, the stars are likely to share the same elemental composition. The gravitational influence of Proxima might also have stirred up the Alpha Centauri protoplanetary disks. This would have increased the delivery of volatiles such as water to the dry inner regions, so possibly enriching any terrestrial planets in the system with this material. [74] Alternatively, Proxima may have been captured at a later date during an encounter, resulting in a highly eccentric orbit that was then stabilized by the galactic tide and additional stellar encounters. Such a scenario may mean that Proxima's planetary companion has had a much lower chance for orbital disruption by Alpha Centauri. [75]

Six single stars, two binary star systems, and a triple star share a common motion through space with Proxima Centauri and the Alpha Centauri system. The space velocities of these stars are all within 10 km/s of Alpha Centauri's peculiar motion. Thus, they may form a moving group of stars, which would indicate a common point of origin, [76] such as in a star cluster.

Though Proxima Centauri is the nearest bona fide star, it is still possible that one or more as-yet undetected sub-stellar brown dwarfs may lie closer. [77]

Planetary system

The Proxima Centauri planetary system [22] [78] [79]
Companion
(in order from star)
Mass Semimajor axis
(AU)
Orbital period
(days)
Eccentricity Inclination Radius
b 1.27+0.19
−0.17
  M
0.0485+0.0041
−0.0051
11.186<0.350.8–1.5 [80]   R
c (unconfirmed)6.0±1.9  M 1.48±0.081894+92
−85

The first indications of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b were found in 2013 by Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire from archival observation data. [81] [82] To confirm the possible discovery, the European Southern Observatory launched the Pale Red Dot [nb 5] project in January 2016. [83] On August 24, 2016, the team of 31 scientists from all around the world, [84] led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London, confirmed the existence of Proxima Centauri b [85] through a peer-reviewed article published in Nature . [22] [86] The measurements were performed using two spectrographs: HARPS on the ESO 3.6 m Telescope at La Silla Observatory and UVES on the 8 m Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory. [22] Several attempts to detect a transit of this planet across the face of Proxima Centauri have been made. A transit-like signal appearing on September 8, 2016 was tentatively identified, using the Bright Star Survey Telescope at the Zhongshan Station in Antarctica. [87]

RV-derived upper mass limits of potential companions [88]
Orbital
period

(days)
Separation
(AU)
Maximum
mass [nb 6]
(M)
3.6–13.80.022–0.0542–3
<100<0.218.5
<1000<116

Proxima Centauri b, or Alpha Centauri Cb, is a planet orbiting the star at a distance of roughly 0.05 AU (7.5 million km) with an orbital period of approximately 11.2 Earth days. Its estimated mass is at least 1.3 times that of the Earth. Moreover, the equilibrium temperature of Proxima b is estimated to be within the range where water could exist as liquid on its surface; thus, placing it within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri. [22] [25] [26]

Prior to this discovery, multiple measurements of the star's radial velocity constrained the maximum mass that a detectable companion to Proxima Centauri could possess. [10] [29] The activity level of the star adds noise to the radial velocity measurements, complicating detection of a companion using this method. [89] In 1998, an examination of Proxima Centauri using the Faint Object Spectrograph on board the Hubble Space Telescope appeared to show evidence of a companion orbiting at a distance of about 0.5 AU. [90] A subsequent search using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 failed to locate any companions. [30] Astrometric measurements at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory appear to rule out a Jupiter-sized planet with an orbital period of 2−12 years. [91] A second signal in the range of 60 to 500 days was also detected, but its nature is still unclear due to stellar activity. [22]

A candidate second planet orbiting Proxima Centauri was reported by Italian astrophysicist Mario Damasso and his colleagues in April 2019. [79] [92] Damasso's team had noticed minor movements of Proxima Centauri in the radial velocity data from the ESO's HARPS instrument, indicating a possible additional planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. [79] Dubbed Proxima c, the exoplanet is estimated to have a minimum mass of six times that of Earth. [79] It is expected to orbit Proxima Centauri at a distance of 1.5 AU, with an orbital period of roughly 1900 days, or about 5.2 years. [92] Due to its large distance from Proxima Centauri, the exoplanet is expected to be uninhabitable, with a low equilibrium temperature of around 39 K. [79] Additional observations and measurements from the HARPS instrument and the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft are needed to verify the existence of the possible exoplanet. [79] Del Sordo of Damasso's team states that Proxima c could provide opportunities for further observations of the Proxima Centauri planetary system, especially by direct imaging. [79] [92]

Proxima Centauri, along with Alpha Centauri A and B, was among the "Tier 1" target stars for NASA's now-canceled Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), which would theoretically have been able to detect planets as small as three Earth masses (M) within two AU of a "Tier 1" target star. [93]

In 2017, a team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array reported detecting a belt of dust orbiting Proxima Centauri at a range of 1−4 AU from the star. This dust has a temperature of around 40 K and has a total estimated mass of 1% of the planet Earth. They also tentatively detected two additional features: a cold belt with a temperature of 10 K orbiting around 30 AU and a compact emission source about 1.2 arcseconds from the star. [94] However, upon further analysis, these emissions were determined to be the result of a large flare emitted by the star in March, 2017. The presence of dust is not needed to model the observations. [95] [96]

Habitability

Pale Red Dot is an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star Proxima Centauri. Pale Red Dot.jpg
Pale Red Dot is an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star Proxima Centauri.

Prior to the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, the TV documentary Alien Worlds hypothesized that a life-sustaining planet could exist in orbit around Proxima Centauri or other red dwarfs. Such a planet would lie within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, about 0.023–0.054 AU (3.4–8.1 million km) from the star, and would have an orbital period of 3.6–14 days. [98] A planet orbiting within this zone may experience tidal locking to the star. If the orbital eccentricity of this hypothetical planet is low, Proxima Centauri would move little in the planet's sky, and most of the surface would experience either day or night perpetually. The presence of an atmosphere could serve to redistribute the energy from the star-lit side to the far side of the planet. [27]

Proxima Centauri's flare outbursts could erode the atmosphere of any planet in its habitable zone, but the documentary's scientists thought that this obstacle could be overcome. Gibor Basri of the University of California, Berkeley, mentioned that "no one [has] found any showstoppers to habitability". For example, one concern was that the torrents of charged particles from the star's flares could strip the atmosphere off any nearby planet. If the planet had a strong magnetic field, the field would deflect the particles from the atmosphere; even the slow rotation of a tidally locked planet that spins once for every time it orbits its star would be enough to generate a magnetic field, as long as part of the planet's interior remained molten. [99]

Other scientists, especially proponents of the rare-Earth hypothesis, [100] disagree that red dwarfs can sustain life. Any exoplanet in this star's habitable zone would likely be tidally locked, resulting in a relatively weak planetary magnetic moment, leading to strong atmospheric erosion by coronal mass ejections from Proxima Centauri. [28]

Future exploration

The Sun as seen from the Alpha Centauri system, using Celestia. Sol View from AlpCenA1.png
The Sun as seen from the Alpha Centauri system, using Celestia.

Because of the star's proximity to Earth, Proxima Centauri has been proposed as a flyby destination for interstellar travel. [101] Proxima currently moves toward Earth at a rate of 22.2 km/s. [8] After 26,700 years, when it will come within 3.11 light-years, it will begin to move farther away. [68]

If non-nuclear, conventional propulsion technologies are used, the flight of a spacecraft to a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri would probably require thousands of years. [102] For example, Voyager 1 , which is now travelling 17 km/s (38,000 mph) [103] relative to the Sun, would reach Proxima in 73,775 years, were the spacecraft travelling in the direction of that star. A slow-moving probe would have only several tens of thousands of years to catch Proxima Centauri near its closest approach, and could end up watching it recede into the distance. [104]

Nuclear pulse propulsion might enable such interstellar travel with a trip timescale of a century, inspiring several studies such as Project Orion, Project Daedalus, and Project Longshot. [104]

Project Breakthrough Starshot aims to reach the Alpha Centauri system within the first half of the 21st century, with microprobes travelling at 20% of the speed of light propelled by around 100 gigawatts of Earth-based lasers. [105] The probes will perform a fly-by of Proxima Centauri to take photos and collect data of its planet's atmospheric composition. It will take 4.22 years for the information collected to be sent back to Earth. [106]

From Proxima Centauri, the Sun would appear as a bright 0.4-magnitude star in the constellation Cassiopeia, similar to that of Achernar from Earth. [nb 7]

See also

Notes

  1. From knowing the absolute visual magnitude of Proxima Centauri, , and the absolute visual magnitude of the Sun, , the visual luminosity of Proxima Centauri can therefore be calculated: = 4.92×10−5
  2. 1 2 The density (ρ) is given by the mass divided by the volume. Relative to the Sun, therefore, the density is:
    =
    = 0.122 · 0.154−3 · (1.41 × 103 kg/m3)
    = 33.4 · (1.41 × 103 kg/m3)
    = 4.71 × 104 kg/m3
    where is the average solar density. See:
    • Munsell, Kirk; Smith, Harman; Davis, Phil; Harvey, Samantha (June 11, 2008). "Sun: facts & figures". Solar system exploration. NASA. Archived from the original on January 2, 2008. Retrieved July 12, 2008.
    • Bergman, Marcel W.; Clark, T. Alan; Wilson, William J. F. (2007). Observing projects using Starry Night Enthusiast (8th ed.). Macmillan. pp. 220–221. ISBN   978-1-4292-0074-5.
  3. For a star south of the zenith, the angle to the zenith is equal to the Latitude minus the Declination. The star is hidden from sight when the zenith angle is 90° or more, i.e. below the horizon. Thus, for Proxima Centauri:
    Highest latitude = 90° + −62.68° = 27.32°.
    See: Campbell, William Wallace (1899). The elements of practical astronomy. London: Macmillan. pp. 109–110. Retrieved August 12, 2008.
  4. Note that by the time Proxima gets to the 40,000-year mark, the entire Alpha Centauri system will have moved to another part of the sky, so the perspective and background will be different.
  5. Pale Red Dot is a reference to Pale Blue Dot, a distant photo of Earth taken by Voyager 1.
  6. This is actually an upper limit on the quantity m sin i, where i is the angle between the orbit normal and the line of sight, in a circular orbit. If the planetary orbits are close to face-on as observed from Earth, or in an eccentric orbit, more massive planets could have evaded detection by the radial velocity method.
  7. The coordinates of the Sun would be diametrically opposite Proxima, at α= 02h 29m 42.9487s, δ=+62° 40 46.141. The absolute magnitude Mv of the Sun is 4.83, so at a parallax π of 0.77199 the apparent magnitude m is given by 4.83 − 5(log10(0.77199) + 1) = 0.40. See: Tayler, Roger John (1994). The Stars: Their Structure and Evolution. Cambridge University Press. p. 16. ISBN   978-0-521-45885-6.

Related Research Articles

Alpha Centauri Star system

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system and closest planetary system to the Solar System at 4.37 light-years (1.34 pc) from the Sun. It is a triple star system, consisting of three stars: α Centauri A, α Centauri B, and α Centauri C.

Barnards Star Low mass red dwarf star about 6 light-years from Earth

Barnard's Star is a very-low-mass red dwarf about 6 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus. It is the fourth nearest known individual star to the Sun and the closest star in the Northern Celestial Hemisphere. Despite its proximity, the star has a dim apparent magnitude of +9.5 and is invisible to the unaided eye; it is much brighter in the infrared than in visible light.

Lalande 21185 star in the constellation Ursa Major

Lalande 21185 is a star in the constellation of Ursa Major, relevant for being the brightest red dwarf observable in the northern hemisphere. Despite this, and although relatively close by, it is very dim, being only magnitude 7.5 in visible light and thus too dim to be seen with the unaided eye. The star is visible through a small telescope or binoculars.

Ross 248, also called HH Andromedae or Gliese 905, is a small star located approximately 10.30 light-years from Earth in the northern constellation of Andromeda. Despite its proximity to the Earth, this star is too dim to be seen with the naked eye. Ross 248 was first catalogued by Frank Elmore Ross in 1926 with his second list of proper-motion stars. In the SIMBAD database it is the 261st-highest proper-motion star. It was too dim to be included in the Hipparcos survey.

Kapteyns Star

Kapteyn's Star is a class M1 red subdwarf about 12.76 light years from Earth in the southern constellation Pictor; it is the closest halo star to the Solar System. With a magnitude of nearly 9 it is visible through binoculars or a telescope.

40 Eridani Star in the constellation Eridanus

40 Eridani, also designated Omicron² Eridani, is a triple star system in the constellation of Eridanus. Based on parallax measurements taken during the Hipparcos mission, it is less than 17 light-years from the Sun.

82 G. Eridani star

82 G. Eridani is a star about 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Eridanus. It is a main-sequence star with a stellar classification of G6.

Gliese 436 is a red dwarf approximately 31.8 light-years away in the zodiac constellation of Leo. It has an apparent visual magnitude of 10.67, which is much too faint to be seen with the naked eye. However, it can be viewed with even a modest telescope of 2.4 in (6 cm) aperture. In 2004, the existence of an extrasolar planet, Gliese 436b, was verified as orbiting the star. This planet was later discovered to transit its host star.

54 Piscium star in the constellation Pisces

54 Piscium is an orange dwarf star approximately 36 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces. In 2002, an extrasolar planet was confirmed to be orbiting the star, and in 2006, a brown dwarf was also discovered orbiting it.

HD 114729 is a 7th magnitude star approximately 118 ly (36.1 pc) away in the constellation of Centaurus. Like our Sun (G2V), it is a yellow dwarf. It is about the same mass as the Sun, but twice as luminous. That indicates a much greater age, perhaps over 10 billion years. HD 114729 has a co-moving companion designated HD 114729 B, with the latter having 25.3% of the Sun's mass and a projected separation of 282±10 AU.

Solar-type star, solar analogs, and solar twins are stars that are particularly similar to the Sun. The stellar classification is a hierarchy with solar twin being most like the Sun followed by solar analog and then solar-type. Observations of these stars are important for understanding better the properties of the Sun in relation to other stars and the habitability of planets.

Groombridge 34 is a binary star system in the northern constellation of Andromeda. It was listed as entry number 34 in A Catalogue of Circumpolar Stars, published posthumously in 1838 by British astronomer Stephen Groombridge. Based upon parallax measurements taken by the Gaia spacecraft, the system is located about 11.6 light-years from the Sun. This positions the pair among the nearest stars to the Solar System.

Gliese 1 is a red dwarf in the constellation Sculptor, which is found in the southern celestial hemisphere. It is one of the closest stars to the Sun, at a distance of 14.2 light years. Because of its proximity to the Earth it is a frequent object of study and much is known about its physical properties and composition. However, with an apparent magnitude of about 8.5 it is too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

Kappa<sup>1</sup> Ceti Variable star

Kappa1 Ceti is a yellow dwarf star approximately 30 light-years away in the equatorial constellation of Cetus. The star was discovered to have a rapid rotation, roughly once every nine days. Though there are no extrasolar planets confirmed to be orbiting the star, Kappa1 Ceti is considered a good candidate to contain terrestrial planets. The system is a candidate binary star, but has not been confirmed. The star should not be confused with the star Kappa2 Ceti, which is ten times as distant.

Luhman 16 Binary brown dwarf, third closest star system.

Luhman 16 is a binary brown-dwarf system in the southern constellation Vela at a distance of approximately 6.5 light-years from the Sun. These are the closest-known brown dwarfs and the closest system found since the measurement of the proper motion of Barnard's Star in 1916, and the third-closest-known system to the Sun. The primary is of spectral type L7.5 and the secondary of type T0.5 ± 1. The masses of Luhman 16 A and B are 33.5 and 28.6 Jupiter masses, respectively, and their ages are estimated to be 600–800 million years. Luhman 16 A and B orbit each other at a distance of about 3.5 astronomical units with an orbital period of approximately 27 years.

Mikko Tuomi is a Finnish astronomer from the University of Hertfordshire, most known for his contributions to the discovery of a number of exoplanets, among them the Proxima Centauri b which orbits the closest star to the Sun. Mikko Tuomi was the first to find indications of the existence of Proxima Centauri b in archival observation data. Other exoplanets to whose discovery or study Tuomi has contributed include HD 40307, HD 154857 c, Kapteyn c, Gliese 682 c, HD 154857, Gliese 221, Gliese 581 g and the planetary system orbiting Tau Ceti. He has led the development of new data analysis techniques for distinguishing observations caused by natural activity of the star and those caused by planets orbiting them.

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