Will We Ever Reach Another Star?

We hear about discoveries of exoplanets every day. So how long will it take us to find another planet like Earth?

There are two separate parts of your brain I would like to speak with today. First, I want to talk to the part that makes decisions on who to vote for, how much insurance you should put on your car and deals with how not paying taxes sends you to jail. We’ll call this part of your brain “Kevin”.

The rest of your brain can kick back, especially the parts that knows what kind of gas station you prefer, whether Lena Dunham is awesome or “the most awesome”, whether a certain sports team is the winningest, or believes that you can leave a casino with more money than you went in with. We will call this part “Other Kevin”, in honor of Dave Willis.

Okay Kevin, you’re up. I’m going to cut to the gut punch, Kevin. Between you and me, it is my displeasure to inform you that science fiction has ruined “Other Kevin”. Just like comic books have compromised their ability to judge the likelihood of someone acquiring heat vision, science fiction has messed up their sense of scale about interstellar travel.

But you already knew that. Not like “Other Kevin”, you’re the smart one. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “space is big”. But when he said that, Douglas was really understating how mind-bogglingly big space really is.

The nearest star is 4 light years away. That means that light, traveling at 300,000 kilometers per second would still need 4 YEARS to reach the nearest star. The fastest spacecraft ever launched by humans would need tens of thousands of years to make that trip.

But science fiction encourages us to think it’s possible. Kirk and Spock zip from world to world with a warp drive violating the Prime Directive right in it’s smug little Roddenberrian face. Han and Chewy can make the Kessel run in only 12 parsecs, which is confusing and requires fan theories to resolve the cognitive space-distance dissonance, and Galactica, The SDF 3, and Guild Navigators all participate in the folding of space.

And science fiction knows everything that’s about to happen, right? Like cellphones. Additionally Kevin, I know what you’re thinking and I’m not going to tear into Lucas on this. It’s too easy, and my ilk do it a little too often. Plus, I’m saving it up for Abrams. Sorry Kevin. Got a little distracted there.

The point is, science fiction is doing colossal hand waving. They’re glossing over key obstacles, like the laws of physics.

Stay with me here.This isn’t like jaywalking bylaws that “probably don’t apply to you at that very moment”, these are the physical laws of the universe that will deliver a complete junk-kicking if you try and pretend they’re not interested in crushing your little atmosphere requiring, century lifespan, conventional propulsion drive dreams.

So let’s say that we wanted to actually send a spacecraft to another star, whilst obeying the laws of physics. We’ll set the bar super low. We’re not talking about massive cruise ships filled with tourists seeking the delights of the super funzone planetoid, Itchy and Scrachylandia Prime.

David Hardy's illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars.  (Credit: D. Hardy)
David Hardy’s illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars. (Credit: D. Hardy)

I’m not talking about sending a crack team of power armored space marines to defend colonists from xenomorphs, or perhaps take other more thorough measures.

No, I’m talking about getting an operational teeny robotic spacecraft from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The fastest spacecraft we’ve ever launched is New Horizons. It’s currently traveling at 14 kilometres per second. It would take this peppy little probevette 100,000 years to get to the nearest star.

This is mostly due to our lack of reality shattering propulsion. Our best propellant option is an ion engine, used by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. According to much adored Ian “Handsome” O’Neill from Discovery Space, we’d be looking at 19,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri if we used an ion engine and added a gravitational assist from the Sun.

Just think of what we could do with those 81,000 years we’d be saving! I’m going to learn the dulcimer!
We can start shearing back the reality curtain and throw money and resources to chase nearby speculative propulsion tech. Things like antimatter engines, or even dropping nuclear bombs out the back of a spacecraft

The best idea in the hopper is to use solar sails, like the Planetary Society’s Lightsail.
Use the light from the Sun as well as powerful lasers to accelerate the craft.

Ion Propulsion
Ion Propulsion System Test for Deep Space 1. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

But if we’re going to start down that road, we could also send microscopic lightsail spacecraft which are much easier to accelerate. Once these miniprobes reached their target, they could link up and form a communications relay, or even robotic factories.

Sorry, I think that was my “Other Kevin” talking. So where are we at, fo’ reals?

Harold “Sonny” White, a researcher with NASA announced that they’ve been testing out a futuristic technology called an EM drive. They detected a very slight “thrust” in their equipment that might mean it could be possible to maybe push a spacecraft in space without having to expel propellent like a chemical rocket or an ion drive.

What’s that, Kevin? Yes, you should totally be skeptical. You’re right, that last bit was a salad of weasel words.

Even if this crazy drive actually works, it still needs to obey the laws of physics. You couldn’t go faster than the speed of light and you would need a remarkable source of energy to power the reactor. Also, yes, Kevin, you’re right NASA is working on a warp drive. There’s no need to yell.

NASA is also working on an actual warp drive concept known as an alcubierre drive. It would actually do what science fiction has claimed: to warp space to allow faster than light travel. But by working on it, I mean, they’ve done a lot of fancy math.

But once they get all the math done, they can just go build it right? This concept is so theoretical that physicists are still arguing whether powering an alcubierre drive would take more energy than contained within the entire Universe. Which, I think we can call an obstacle.

Oh, one more thing. “Other Kevin”, thanks for being so patient. Here’s your reward. Unicorns are real, and Kevin has been lying to you this whole time. Go get ‘em tiger. Place your bets. When do you think we’ll send our first probe towards another star? Predict the departure date in the comments below.

What Are The Most Famous Stars?

While there are untold billions of celestial objects visible in the nighttime sky, some of them are better known than others. Most of these are stars that are visible to the naked eye and very bright compared to other stellar objects. For this reason, most of them have a long history of being observed and studied by human beings, and most likely occupy an important place in ancient folklore.

So without further ado, here is a sampling of some of the better-known stars in that are visible in the nighttime sky:

Also known as the North Star (as well as the Pole Star, Lodestar, and sometimes Guiding Star), Polaris is the 45th brightest star in the night sky. It is very close to the north celestial pole, which is why it has been used as a navigational tool in the northern hemisphere for centuries. Scientifically speaking, this star is known as Alpha Ursae Minoris because it is the alpha star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear).

The Polaris star system, as seen within the Ursa Minor constellation and up close. Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and H. Bond (STScI)
The Polaris star system, as seen within the Ursa Minor constellation and up close. Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and H. Bond (STScI)

It’s more than 430 light-years away from Earth, but its luminosity (being a white supergiant) makes it highly visible to us here on Earth. What’s more, rather than being a single supergiant, Polaris is actually a trinary star system, comprised of a main star (alpha UMi Aa) and two smaller companions (alpha UMi B, alpha UMi Ab). These, along with its two distant components (alpha UMi C, alpha UMi D), make it a multistar system.

Interestingly enough, Polaris wasn’t always the north star. That’s because Earth’s axis wobbles over thousands of years and points in different directions. But until such time as Earth’s axis moves farther away from the “Polestar”, it remains our guide.

Because it is what is known as a Cepheid variable star – i.e. a star that pulsates radially, varying in both temperature and diameter to produce brightness changes – it’s distance to our Sun has been the subject of revision. Many scientific papers suggest that it may be up to 30% closer to our Solar System than previously expected – putting it in the vicinity of 238 light years away.

Time exposure centered on Polaris, the North Star. Notice that the closer stars are to Polaris, the smaller the circles they describe. Stars at the edge of the frame make much larger circles. Credit: Bob King
Time exposure centered on Polaris, the North Star. Notice that the closer stars are to Polaris, the smaller the circles they describe. Stars at the edge of the frame make much larger circles. Credit: Bob King

Also known as the Dog Star, because it’s the brightest star in Canis Major (the “Big Dog”), Sirius is also the brightest star in the night sky. The name “Sirius” is derived from the Ancient Greek “Seirios“, which translates to “glowing” or “scorcher”. Whereas it appears to be a single bright star to the naked eye, Sirius is actually a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star named Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion named Sirius B.

The reason why it is so bright in the sky is due to a combination of its luminosity and distance – at 6.8 light years, it is one of Earth’s nearest neighbors. And in truth, it is actually getting closer. For the next 60,000 years or so, astronomers expect that it will continue to approach our Solar System; at which point, it will begin to recede again.

In ancient Egypt, it was seen as a signal that the flooding of the Nile was close at hand. For the Greeks, the rising of Sirius in the night sky was a sign of the”dog days of summer”. To the Polynesians in the southern hemisphere, it marked the approach of winter and was an important star for navigation around the Pacific Ocean.

Alpha Centauri System:
Also known as Rigel Kent or Toliman, Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus and the third brightest star in the night sky. It is also the closest star system to Earth, at just a shade over four light-years. But much like Sirius and Polaris, it is actually a multistar system, consisting of Alpha Centauri A, B, and Proxima Centauri (aka. Centauri C).

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

Based on their spectral classifications, Alpha Centauri A is a main sequence white dwarf with roughly 110% of the mass and 151.9% the luminosity of our Sun. Alpha Centauri B is an orange subgiant with 90.7% of the Sun’s mass and 44.5% of its luminosity. Proxima Centauri, the smallest of the three, is a red dwarf roughly 0.12 times the mass of our Sun, and which is the closest of the three to our Solar System.

English explorer Robert Hues was the first European to make a recorded mention of Alpha Centauri, which he did in his 1592 work Tractatus de Globis. In 1689, Jesuit priest and astronomer Jean Richaud confirmed the existence of a second star in the system. Proxima Centauri was discovered in 1915 by Scottish astronomer Robert Innes, Director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 2012, astronomers discovered an Earth-sized planet around Alpha Centauri B. Known as Alpha Centauri Bb, it’s close proximity to its parent star likely means that it is too hot to support life.

Pronounced “Beetle-juice” (yes, the same as the 1988 Tim Burton movie), this bright red supergiant is roughly 65o light-year from Earth. Also known as Alpha Orionis, it is nevertheless easy to spot in the Orion constellation since it is one of the largest and most luminous stars in the night sky.

Betelgeuse, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
Betelgeuse, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, and in relation to the Orion constellation. Credit: NASA

The star’s name is derived from the Arabic name Ibt al-Jauza’, which literally means “the hand of Orion”. In 1985, Margarita Karovska and colleagues from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, announced the discovery of two close companions orbiting Betelgeuse. While this remains unconfirmed, the existence of possible companions remains an intriguing possibility.

What excites astronomers about Betelgeuse is it will one day go supernova, which is sure to be a spectacular event that people on Earth will be able to see. However, the exact date of when that might happen remains unknown.

Also known as Beta Orionis, and located between 700 and 900 light years away, Rigel is the brightest star in the constellation Orion and the seventh brightest star in the night sky. Here too, what appears to be a blue supergiant is actually a multistar system. The primary star (Rigel A) is a blue-white supergiant that is 21 times more massive than our sun, and shines with approximately 120,000 times the luminosity.

Rigel B is itself a binary system, consisting of two main sequence blue-white subdwarf stars. Rigel B is the more massive of the pair, weighing in at 2.5 Solar masses versus Rigel C’s 1.9. Rigel has been recognized as being a binary since at least 1831 when German astronomer F.G.W. Struve first measured it. A fourth star in the system has been proposed, but it is generally considered that this is a misinterpretation of the main star’s variability.

Rigel A is a young star, being only 10 million years old. And given its size, it is expected to go supernova when it reaches the end of its life.

Vega is another bright blue star that anchors the otherwise faint Lyra constellation (the Harp). Along with Deneb (from Cygnus) and Altair (from Aquila), it is a part of the Summer Triangle in the Northern hemisphere. It is also the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the fifth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere (after Arcturus).

Characterized as a white dwarf star, Vega is roughly 2.1 times as massive as our Sun. Together with Arcturus and Sirius, it is one of the most luminous stars in the Sun’s neighborhood. It is a relatively close star at only 25 light-years from Earth.

Vega was the first star other than the Sun to be photographed and the first to have its spectrum recorded. It was also one of the first stars whose distance was estimated through parallax measurements, and has served as the baseline for calibrating the photometric brightness scale. Vega’s extensive history of study has led it to be termed “arguably the next most important star in the sky after the Sun.”

Artist's concept of a recent massive collision of dwarf planet-sized objects that may have contributed to the dust ring around the star Vega. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
Artist’s concept of a recent massive collision of dwarf planet-sized objects that may have contributed to the dust ring around the star Vega. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

Based on observations that showed excess emission of infrared radiation, Vega is believed to have a circumstellar disk of dust. This dust is likely to be the result of collisions between objects in an orbiting debris disk. For this reason, stars that display an infrared excess because of circumstellar dust are termed “Vega-like stars”.

Thousands of years ago, (ca. 12,000 BCE) Vega was used as the North Star is today, and will be so again around the year 13,727 CE.

Also known as the “Seven Sisters”, Messier 45 or M45, Pleiades is actually an open star cluster located in the constellation of Taurus. At an average distance of 444 light years from our Sun, it is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth, and the most visible to the naked eye. Though the seven largest stars are the most apparent, the cluster actually consists of over 1,000 confirmed members (along with several unconfirmed binaries).

The core radius of the cluster is about 8 light years across, while it measures some 43 light years at the outer edges. It is dominated by young, hot blue stars, though brown dwarfs – which are just a fraction of the Sun’s mass – are believed to account for 25% of its member stars.

Pleiades by Jamie Ball
Pleiades, also known as M45, is a prominent open star cluster in the sky. Image Credit: Jamie Ball

The age of the cluster has been estimated at between 75 and 150 million years, and it is slowly moving in the direction of the “feet” of what is currently the constellation of Orion. The cluster has had several meanings for many different cultures here on Earth, which include representations in Biblical, ancient Greek, Asian, and traditional Native American folklore.

Also known as Alpha Scorpii, Antares is a red supergiant and one of the largest and most luminous observable stars in the nighttime sky. It’s name – which is Greek for “rival to Mars” (aka. Ares) – refers to its reddish appearance, which resembles Mars in some respects. It’s location is also close to the ecliptic, the imaginary band in the sky where the planets, Moon and Sun move.

This supergiant is estimated to be 17 times more massive, 850 times larger in terms of diameter, and 10,000 times more luminous than our Sun. Hence why it can be seen with the naked eye, despite being approximately 550 light-years from Earth. The most recent estimates place its age at 12 million years.

A red supergiant, Antares is about 850 times the diameter of our own Sun, 15 times more massive, and 10,000 times brighter. Credit: NASA/Ivan Eder
A red supergiant, Antares is over 850 times the diameter of our own Sun, 15 times more massive, and 10,000 times brighter. Credit: NASA/Ivan Eder

Antares is the seventeenth brightest star that can be seen with the naked eye and the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Along with Aldebaran, Regulus, and Fomalhaut, Antares comprises the group known as the ‘Royal stars of Persia’ – four stars that the ancient Persians (circa. 3000 BCE) believed guarded the four districts of the heavens.

Also known as Alpha Carinae, this white giant is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and the second brightest star in the nighttime sky. Located over 300 light-years away from Earth, this star is named after the mythological Canopus, the navigator for king Menelaus of Sparta in The Iliad. 

Thought it was not visible to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the star was known to the ancient Egyptians, as well as the Navajo, Chinese and ancient Indo-Aryan people. In Vedic literature, Canopus is associated with Agastya, a revered sage who is believed to have lived during the 6th or 7th century BCE. To the Chinese, Canopus was known as the “Star of the Old Man”, and was charted by astronomer Yi Xing in 724 CE.

An image of Canopus, as taken by crewmembers aboard the ISS. Credit: NASA
Image of Canopus, as taken by crew members aboard the ISS. Credit: NASA

It is also referred to by its Arabic name Suhayl (Soheil in persian), which was given to it by Islamic scholars in the 7th Century CE. To the Bedouin people of the Negev and Sinai, it was also known as Suhayl, and used along with Polaris as the two principal stars for navigation at night.

It was not until 1592 that it was brought to the attention of European observers, once again by Robert Hues who recorded his observations of it alongside Achernar and Alpha Centauri in his Tractatus de Globis (1592).

As he noted of these three stars, “Now, therefore, there are but three Stars of the first magnitude that I could perceive in all those parts which are never seene here in England. The first of these is that bright Star in the sterne of Argo which they call Canobus. The second is in the end of Eridanus. The third is in the right foote of the Centaure.”

This star is commonly used for spacecraft to orient themselves in space, since it is so bright compared to the stars surrounding it.

Universe Today has articles on what is the North Star and types of stars. Here’s another article about the 10 brightest stars. Astronomy Cast has an episode on famous stars.

What is the Smallest Star?

We’ve talked about the biggest stars, but what about the smallest stars? What’s the smallest star you can see with your own eyes, and how small can they get?

Space and astronomy is always flaunting its size issues. Biggest star, hugest nebula, prettiest most talented massive galaxy, most infinite universe, and which comet came out on top in the bikini category. Blah blah blah.

In an effort to balance the scales a little we’re going look at the other end of the spectrum. Today we’re talking small stars. First, I’m going to get the Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis joke out of the way, so we can start talking about adorable little teeny tiny fusion factories.

We get big stars when we’ve got many times the mass of the Sun’s worth of hydrogen in one spot. Unsurprisingly, to get smaller stars we’ll need less hydrogen, but there’s a line we can’t cross where there’s so little, that it won’t generate the temperature and pressure at its core to ignite solar fusion. Then it’s a blob, it’s a mess. It’s clean-up in aisle Andromeda. It’s who didn’t put the lid back on the jar marked H.

So how small can stars get? And what’s the smallest star we know about? In the traditional sense, a star is an object that has enough mass and pressure in its core that it can ignite fusion, crushing atoms of hydrogen into helium.

Fusion is exothermic, releasing energy. It’s this energy that counteracts the force of gravity pulling everything inward. That gives you the size of the star and keeps it from collapsing in on itself.

By some random coincidence and fluke of nature our Sun is exactly 1 solar mass. Actually, that’s not true at all, our shame is that we use our Sun as the measuring stick for other stars. This might be the root of this size business. We’re in an endless star measuring contest, with whose is the most massive and whose has the largest circumference?

So, as it turns out, you can still have fusion reactions within a star if you get all the way down to 7.5% of a solar mass. This is the version you know as a red dwarf. We haven’t had a chance to measure many red dwarf stars, but the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, has about 12.3% the mass of the Sun and measures only 200,000 kilometers across. In other words, the smallest possible red dwarf would only be about 50% larger than Jupiter.

There is an important distinction, this red dwarf star would have about EIGHTY times the mass of Jupiter. I know that sounds crazy, but when you pile on more hydrogen, it doesn’t make the star that much bigger. It only makes it denser as the gravity pulls the star together more and more.

At the time I’m recording this video, this is smallest known star at 9% the mass of the Sun, just a smidge over the smallest theoretical size.

X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra
X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra

Proxima Centauri is about 12% of a solar mass, and the closest star to Earth, after the Sun. But it’s much too dim to be seen without a telescope. In fact, no red dwarfs are visible with the unaided eye. The smallest star you can see is 61 Cygni, a binary pair with one star getting only 66% the size of the Sun. It’s only 11.4 light years away, and you can just barely see it in dark skies. After that it’s Spock’s home, Epsilon Eridani, with 74% the size of the Sun, then Alpha Centauri B with 87%, and then the Sun. So, here’s your new nerd party fact. The Sun is the 4th smallest star you can see with your own eyes. All the other stars you can see are much bigger than the Sun. They’re all gigantic terrifying monsters.

And in the end, our Sun is absolutely huge compared to the smallest stars out there. We here like to think of our Sun as perfectly adequate for our needs, it’s ours and all life on Earth is there because of it. It’s exactly the right size for us. So don’t you worry for one second about all those other big stars out there.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Closest Star To Our Sun Beckons In New Hubble Image

Remember that planet discovered near Alpha Centauri almost exactly a year ago? As you may remember, it’s the closest system to Earth, making some people speculate about how quickly we could get a spacecraft in that general direction. Four light years is close in galactic terms, but it’s a little far away for the technology we have now — unless we wanted to wait a few tens thousands of years for the journey to complete.

Meanwhile, we can at least take pictures of that star system. The Hubble Space Telescope team has released a new picture of Alpha Centauri’s sister star, Proxima Centauri. While Proxima is technically the closest star to Earth, it’s too faint to be seen by the naked eye, which is not all that surprising given it is only an eighth of the sun’s mass. Sometimes, however, it gets a little brighter.

“Proxima is what is known as a ‘flare star’, meaning that convection processes within the star’s body make it prone to random and dramatic changes in brightness.” stated the Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre.

“The convection processes not only trigger brilliant bursts of starlight but, combined with other factors, mean that Proxima Centauri is in for a very long life.”

How long? Well, consider the following: the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and Proxima is expected to remain in middle age for another four TRILLION years. Plenty of time for us to send a spacecraft over there if we’re patient enough. (The universe itself is expected to last a while, as Wise Geek explains.)

The picture was nabbed with Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, with neighbouring stars Alpha Centauri A and B out of the frame.

Source: Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre

Proxima Centauri

[/caption]As the nearest star from our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is a prime candidate for future interstellar travel and space colonization missions.

In the meantime, scientists are trying to determine whether this star has super Earths orbiting within its habitable zone. Habitable zones are regions around a star where planets are believed to receive just the right amount of heat. For instance, Earth is within the Sun’s habitable zone.

If we were slightly nearer, say on Venus’ orbit, the heat would have evaporated all our oceans. On the other hand, if we were slightly farther, the temperature would have been too cold to support life.

So far, searches in the neighborhood of Proxima Centauri have revealed nothing. Even companion stars or supermassive planets that may be accompanying the star have not yet been discovered (if they are ever there at all). Although the search continues, some scientists believe Proxima Centauri’s flares can be a big obstacle for life even inside the star’s habitable zone.

Proxima Centauri’s flares are believed to be caused by magnetic activity. When a flare occurs, the brightness of all electromagnetic waves emitted by the star increases. This includes radio waves as well as harmful X-rays. The most common flare stars are red dwarfs, just like Proxima Centauri.

Now, even if Proxima Centauri is the nearest star, it is still 4.2 light years away. That’s about 4 x 10 13 km. The spacecraft that would take the first explorers to that system would have to rely on a virtually unlimited supply of energy. Furthermore, sufficient shielding against cosmic radiation should be in place.

Proxima Centauri is smaller than our Sun with a mass of approximately 0.123 solar masses and a radius of only about 0.145 solar radii. Its interior is believed to be totally dependent on convection when it comes to transferring heat from the core to the exterior.

Discovered in 1915 by Robert Innes, the Director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa, the star was observed to have the same proper motion as Alpha Centauri. Further studies confirmed that it was in fact very close to Alpha Centauri. The current distance between the two is estimated to be about only 0.21 light years.

Here are some articles in Universe Today that talk about Proxima Centauri:

What is the nearest star to the Sun?

How far is the nearest star?

Can’t get enough of stars? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and here’s the stars and galaxies homepage..

We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?

Source: Wikipedia