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Alpha Centauri is the closest known star system to the Solar System. Also known as Rigil Kentaurus, Alpha Centauri is actually a multiple star system. It’s certainly a binary star, with two sunlike stars orbiting one another. And there’s also a red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, which astronomers still argue about whether it’s part of the system.
The closest star in the group is Proxima Centauri, located only 4.243 light-years from the Sun. And then the Alpha Centauri AB stars are located 4.37 light-years away.
With the unaided eye, Alpha Centauri looks like a single star. But then under the power of a telescope, it’s possible to split them and see the individual stars separately. Alpha Centauri is only really prominent in the southern skies, and below the horizon to astronomers in the north.
Alpha Centauri A is slightly larger and more luminous than the Sun, while Alpha Centauri B is smaller and cooler than the Sun. But Proxima Centauri is a tiny red dwarf star, with only 1/8th the mass of the Sun.
We’ve written several articles about the Alpha Centauri system. Here’s an article about how we might be able to detect Earthlike planets around Alpha Centauri, and here’s an article about the sounds of Alpha Centauri.
Here’s a cool image of Alpha Centauri at Astronomy Picture of the Day.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about what it might take to travel to Alpha Centauri. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.