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article imageHubble telescope eyeballs star Proxima Centauri

By Robert Myles     Nov 2, 2013 in Science
NASA has released an image of Proxima Centauri taken with the joint NASA/European Space Agency Hubble Space Telescope showing the closest star to our solar system (apart from the Sun) shining brightly.
Proxima Centauri, lying in the constellation Centaurus — the Centaur — as suggested by its name is our closest stellar neighbour. But although Proxima Centauri lies virtually in our galactic backyard at just 4.2 light years away, it isn’t visible to the naked eye. Even if it was, in most of the northern hemisphere it would still be unseen since the constellation Centaurus is currently only visible in the southern hemisphere and at a maximum latitude of 27° north of the equator.
In the fullness of time, Proxima Centauri will be observable from the northern hemisphere as its constellation appears to slowly drift northwards in the sky, thanks to precession. Precession is the term given to changes in the angle of Earth rotating on its own axis.
For northern stargazers, however, observing Proxima Centauri with the aid of a telescope in Europe and North America, would still involve a lengthy wait of some thousands of years.
Now, with the aid of the Hubble Space Telescope, despite Proxima Centauri having a very low luminosity, our next-door stellar neighbour can be seen shining brightly.
By comparison with our Sun, Proxima Centauri is not only dull, but tiny too. Discovered in 1915 by the Scottish born astronomer Robert Innes, it’s an M-classification red dwarf in stellar terms. Proxima Centauri has a radius of only 97,000 kilometers (about 60,000 miles), just over one-third as big again as Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.
Proxima Centauri is also part of a triple-star system. It orbits its companion stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, both roughly the same size as our Sun, at an extreme distance of 1.9 trillion kilometers (about 1.2 trillion miles).
On occasions, astronomers have observed an increase in Proxima Centauri’s brightness, causing it to be termed a “flare star.” Such intermittent bursts in luminosity occur due to convection processes within the body of Proxima Centauri. These, in turn, trigger intense bursts of starlight.
But despite its occasional flashes of stellar brilliance, Proxima Centauri will not be exhausting the stocks of hydrogen fuelling the nuclear fusion reactions deep within the star anytime soon. In stellar terms, Proxima Centauri is something of a miser. Whereas our Sun is expected to be good for another 7 billion years or so, NASA predicts Proxima Centauri will only approach the end of its life four trillion years hence.
That’s about 300 times the age of our Universe — surely plenty time for humanity to pay a neighborly visit.
More about Hubble space telescope, Proxima Centauri, constellation centaurus, stellar neighbors, alpha centauri
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