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Alpha Centauri A[1]/B[2]
Position Alpha Cen.png
The position of Alpha Centauri
Observation data
Epoch J2000.0      Equinox J2000.0
Constellation Centaurus
Alpha Centauri A
Right ascension 14h 39m 36.4951s
Declination -60° 50′ 02.308″
Apparent magnitude (V) −0.01
Alpha Centauri B
Right ascension 14h 39m 35.0803s
Declination -60° 50′ 13.761″
Apparent magnitude (V) +1.33
Spectral type G2V / K1V[3][4]
U-B color index +0.23 / +0.63
B-V color index +0.69 / +0.90
Radial velocity (Rv) −21.6 km/s
Proper motion (μ) RA: −3678.19 mas/yr
Dec.: 481.84 mas/yr
Parallax (π) 747.23 ± 1.17 mas
Distance 4.365 ± 0.007 ly
(1.338 ± 0.002 pc)
Absolute magnitude (MV) 4.38 / 5.71
Alpha Centauri A
Mass 1.100[5] M
Radius 1.227[5] R
Surface gravity (log g) 4.30[6]
Luminosity 1.519[5] L
Temperature 5790[5] K
Metallicity 151%[5] Sun
Rotation 22 days[7]
Age 4.85 × 109[5] years
Alpha Centauri B
Mass 0.907[5] M
Radius 0.865[5] R
Surface gravity (log g) 4.37[6]
Luminosity 0.500[5] L
Temperature 5260[5] K
Metallicity 160%[5] Sun
Rotation 41 days[7]
Age 4.85 × 109[5] years
Companion Alpha Centauri AB
Period (P) 79.91 yr
Semimajor axis (a) 17.57"
Eccentricity (e) 0.5179
Inclination (i) 79.205°
Longitude of the node (Ω) 204.85°
Periastron epoch (T) 1875.66
Argument of periastron (ω)
Other designations
Rigil Kentaurus, Rigil Kent, Toliman, Bungula, FK5 538, CP(D)−60°5483, GC 19728, CCDM J14396-6050

α Cen A

α¹ Centauri, GJ 559 A, HR 5459, HD 128620, GCTP 3309.00, LHS 50, SAO 252838, HIP 71683

α Cen B

α² Centauri, GJ 559 B, HR 5460, HD 128621, LHS 51, HIP 71681

α Cen C (= Proxima Cen)

LHS 49, HIP 70890
Database references

Alpha Centauri (α Centauri / α Cen); (also known as Rigil Kentaurus, Rigil Kent, or Toliman) is the binary star system Alpha Centauri AB (α Cen AB), of which Alpha Centauri A (α Cen A) is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus. To the unaided eye it appears as a single star, whose total visual magnitude would identify it as the third brightest star in the night sky.

Alpha Centauri AB is 1.34 parsecs or 4.37 light years away from our Sun.[9] The two stars are the closest stars to the Sun after their companion Proxima Centauri, at 0.21 light years away from the two, and at 4.243 light years away from the Sun.


Component designations

"Alpha Centauri" is the name given to what appears as a single star to the naked eye and the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus. With the aid of a telescope, Alpha Centauri can be resolved into a binary star system in close orbit. This is known as the "Alpha Centauri AB" system, often abbreviated as "α Centauri AB" or "α Cen AB".

"Alpha Centauri A (α Cen A)" and "Alpha Centauri B (α Cen B)" are the individual stars of the binary system, usually defined to identify them as the different component of the binary α Cen AB. As viewed from Earth, there is an additional companion located 2.18° away from the AB star system, a distance much greater than the observed separation between stars A and B. This companion is called "Proxima Centauri", "Proxima" or "α Cen C". If it were bright enough to be seen without a telescope, Proxima Centauri would appear to the naked eye as a star separate from α Cen AB. Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri form a visual double star, and they are assumed to be gravitationally associated with each other. Direct evidence that Proxima Centauri has an elliptical orbit typical of binary stars has yet to be found.[10]

Together all three components make a triple star system, referred by double star observers as the triple star (or multiple star), "α Cen AB-C".

This naming system allows specialist double star astronomers to define system components and the relationships between the different components. All component designations are held and controlled by the U.S. Naval Observatory, in a continuously updated catalogue called the Washington Double Star Catalogue or WDS. It contains over 102,387 double stars or pairs using this system of designation.[10]

Nature of the system

At −0.27v visual magnitude,[11] Alpha Centauri appears to the naked-eye as a single star and is fainter than Sirius and Canopus. The next brightest star in the night sky is Arcturus. When considered among the individual brightest stars in the sky (excluding the Sun), Alpha Centauri A is the fourth brightest at −0.01 magnitude,[12] being only fractionally fainter than Arcturus at −0.04v magnitude. Alpha Centauri B at 1.33v magnitude is twenty-first in brightness.

Component Sizes and Colors. Shows the relative sizes and colors stars in the Alpha Centauri system and compares them to the Sun.

Alpha Centauri A is the principal member or primary of the binary system, being slightly larger and more luminous than our Sun. It is a solar-like main sequence star with a similar yellowish-white color, whose stellar classification is spectral type G2 V.[12] From the determined mutual orbital parameters, α Cen A is about 10% more massive than our Sun, with a radius about 23% larger.[5] The projected rotational velocityv·sin i ) of this star is 2.7±0.7 km·s−1, resulting in an estimated rotational period of 22 days,[7] which gives it a slightly faster rotational period than our Sun's 25 days.

Alpha Centauri B is the companion star or secondary, slightly smaller and less luminous than our Sun. This main sequence star is of spectral type of K1 V,[4][12] making it more an orangish-yellow color than the whiter primary star. α Cen B is about 90% the mass of the Sun and 14% smaller in radius.[5] The projected rotational velocity ( v·sin i ) is 1.1±0.8 km·s−1, resulting in an estimated rotational period of 41 days.[7] (An earlier estimate gave a similar rotation period of 36.8 days.)[13] Although it has a lower luminosity than component A, star B's spectrum emits higher energies in X-rays. The light curve of B varies on a short time scale and there has been at least one observed flare.[14]

This illustration shows the comparative view from earth of (from left to right) the Sun, α Centauri A, α Centauri B and Proxima Centauri

Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri, is of spectral class M5Ve[12] or M5VIe, suggesting this is either a small main sequence star (Type V) or sub-dwarf (VI) with emission lines, whose B-V color index is +1.81. Its mass is about 0.12 Mʘ.

Together, the bright visible components of the binary star system are called Alpha Centauri AB (α Cen AB). This "AB" designation denotes the apparent gravitational centre of the main binary system relative to other companion star(s) in any multiple star system.[15] "AB-C" refers to the orbit of Proxima around the central binary, being the distance between the centre of gravity and the outlying companion. Some older references use the confusing and now discontinued designation of A×B. Since the distance between the Sun and α Cen AB does not differ significantly from either star, gravitationally this binary system is considered as if it were one object.[16]


Resolution of the binary star α Cen AB is too close to be seen by the naked eye, as the angular separation varies between 2 and 22 arcsec,[17] but through much of the orbit, both are easily resolved in binoculars or small 5 cm (2 in) telescopes.[18]

In the southern hemisphere, Alpha Centauri is one of the stars of The Pointers or The Southern Pointers[18] with Beta Centauri or Hadar / Agena.[19] Both stars directly point towards the constellation Crux—the Southern Cross.[18] The Pointers easily distinguish the true Southern Cross from the fainter asterism known as the False Cross.[20] Beta Centauri lies some 4.5° west, mid-way between the Crux and α Centauri.[18]

South of about −29° S latitude, α Centauri is circumpolar and never sets below the horizon.[21] Both stars, including the Crux, are too far south to be visible for mid-latitude northern observers. Below about +29° N latitude to the equator during the northern summer, α Centauri lies close to the southern horizon.[19] The star culminates each year at midnight on 24 April or 9 p.m. on 8 June.[19][22]

As seen from Earth, Proxima Centauri lies 2.2° southwest from Alpha Centauri AB.[23] This is about four times the angular diameter of the Full Moon, and almost exactly half the distance between Alpha Centauri AB and Beta Centauri. Proxima usually appears as a deep-red star of 13.1v visual magnitude in a poorly populated star field, requiring moderately sized telescopes to see. Listed as V645 Cen in the General Catalogue of Variable Stars (G.C.V.S.) Version 4.2, this UV Ceti-type flare star can unexpectedly brighten rapidly to about 11.0v or 11.09V magnitude.[12] Some amateur and professional astronomers regularly monitor for outbursts using either optical or radio telescopes.[24]

Observational history

According to the renowned double star observer Robert Aitken (1961), Father Richaud discovered Alpha Centauri AB's duplicity from the Indian city of Pondicherry in December 1689 while observing a comet.[25][26] By 1752, French astronomer Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaillé made astrometric positional measurements using a meridian circle while John Herschel, in 1834, made the first micrometrical observations.[27] Since the early 20th Century, measures have been made with photographic plates.[28]

By 1926, South African astronomer William Stephen Finsen calculated the approximate orbit elements close to those now accepted for this system.[29] All future positions are now sufficiently accurate for visual observers to determine the relative places of the stars from a binary star ephemeris.[30] Others, like the French astronomer D. Pourbaix (2002), have regularly refined the precision of any new published orbital elements.[26]

Alpha Centauri A and B resolved over the limb of Saturn, as seen by Cassini–Huygens

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System. It lies about 4.37 light-years in distance, or about 41.5 trillion kilometres, 25.8 trillion miles or 277,600 AU. Astronomer Thomas James Henderson made the original discovery from many exacting observations of the trigonometric parallaxes of the AB system between April 1832 and May 1833. He withheld the results because he suspected they were too large to be true, but eventually published in 1839 after Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel released his own accurately determined parallax for 61 Cygni in 1838.[31] For this reason, some consider Alpha Centauri as the second star to have its distance measured because it was not 'officially' recognized first.

R.T.A. Innes from South Africa discovered Proxima Centauri in 1915 by blinking photographic plates taken at different times during a dedicated proper motion survey. This showed the large proper motion and parallax of the star was similar in both size and direction to those of α Centauri AB, suggesting immediately it was part of the system and slightly closer to us than α Centauri AB. Lying 4.22 light-years away, Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to the Sun. All current derived distances for the three stars are presently from the parallaxes obtained from the Hipparcos star catalog (HIP).[32][33][34][35]

The binary system

Apparent and True Orbits of Alpha Centauri. Motion is shown from the A component against the relative orbital motion of B component. The Apparent Orbit (thin ellipse) is the shape of the orbit as seen by the observer on Earth. The True Orbit is the shape of the orbit viewed perpendicular to the plane of the orbital motion.

The orbital period is 79.91 years.[26] (Hence the property of being the second closest star to the Sun after Proxima Centauri alternates between Alpha Centauri A and B every 40 years.) The A and B components of this binary star can approach each other to 11.2 astronomical units (equivalent to 1.67 billion km or about the mean distance between the Sun and Saturn), or recede as far as 35.6 AU (5.3 billion km—approximately the distance from the Sun to Pluto).[26][36] This is a consequence of the binary's substantial orbital eccentricity e = 0.5179 — unlike the planetary orbits in the Solar System, whose orbital eccentricities do not exceed e = 0.1 (with the exception of Mercury with e = 0.206).[26] From the orbital elements, the total mass of both stars is about 2.0 M[37]—or twice that of the Sun.[36] The average individual stellar masses are 1.09 M and 0.90 M, respectively,[38] though quoted in recent years are some slightly higher mass values, such as 1.14 M and 0.92 M,[12] or totalling 2.06 M. Alpha Centauri A and B have absolute magnitudes of +4.38 and +4.71, respectively.[12][28] Stellar evolution theory implies both stars are slightly older than the Sun[5] at 5 to 6 billion years, as derived by both mass and their spectral characteristics.[23][39]

Viewed from Earth, the apparent orbit of this binary star means that the separation and position angle (P.A.) are in continuous change throughout the projected orbit. Observed stellar positions in 2008 are separated by 8.29 arcsec through a P.A. of 237°, reducing to 7.53 arcsec through 241° in 2009.[26] Next closest approach will be in February 2016, at 4.0 arcsec through 300°.[26][40] Observed maximum separation of these stars is about 22 arcsec, while the minimum distance is a little less than 2 arcsec.[41] Widest separation occurred during February 1976 and the next will be in January 2056.[26]

In the true orbit, closest approach or periastron was in August 1955, and next in May 2035. Furthest orbital separation at apastron last occurred in May 1995 and the next will be in 2075. The apparent distance between the two stars is presently decreasing.[26]

Companion: Proxima Centauri

The much fainter red dwarf star named Proxima Centauri, or simply "Proxima", is about 12,000 to 13,000 A.U. away from Alpha Centauri AB.[15][23][28] This is equivalent to 0.21 light years or 1.94 trillion kilometres—about 5% the distance between the Sun and α Cen AB. Proxima may be gravitationally bound to α Cen AB, orbiting it with a period between 100,000 and 500,000 years.[23] However, it is also possible that Proxima is not gravitationally bound and thus is moving along a hyperbolic trajectory[42] around α Cen AB.[15] The main evidence for a bound orbit is that Proxima's association with Alpha Centauri AB is unlikely to be accidental, since they share approximately the same motion through space.[23] Theoretically, Proxima could leave the system after several million years.[43] It is not yet certain whether Proxima and Alpha are truly gravitationally bound.[44]

Proxima is an M5.5V spectral class red dwarf with an absolute magnitude of +15.53, which is considerably less than the Sun. By mass, Proxima is presently calculated as 0.123±0.06 Mʘ (rounded to 0.12 Mʘ) or about one-eighth that of the Sun.[45]

High proper motion star

All components of Alpha Centauri display significant proper motions against the background sky, similar to the first magnitude stars, Sirius and Arcturus. Over the centuries, this causes the apparent stellar positions to slowly change. Such motions define the high proper motion stars.[46] These stellar motions were unknown to ancient astronomers. Most assumed that all stars were immortal and permanently fixed on the celestial sphere, as stated in the works of the philosopher Aristotle.[47]

Edmond Halley in 1718 found that some stars had significantly moved from their ancient astrometric positions.[48] For example, the bright star Arcturus (α Boo) in the constellation of Boŏtes showed an almost ½° difference in 1800 years,[49] as did the brightest star, Sirius, in Canis Major (α CMa).[50] Halley's positional comparison was Ptolemy's catalogue of stars known today as the Almagest[51] whose original data was plagiarised from Hipparchos during the 1st Century B.C.[52][53][54] Halley's proper motions were mostly for northern stars, so the southern star Alpha Centauri was not determined until the early 19th Century.[41]

Scottish born observer Thomas James Henderson in the 1830s at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope discovered the true distance of Alpha Centauri.[55][56] He soon realised this system displayed an unusually high proper motion,[57] and therefore its observed true velocity through space should be much larger.[58][41] In this case, the apparent stellar motion was found using Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille astrometric observations of 1751–52,[59] by the observed differences between the two measured positions in different epochs. Using the Hipparcos Star Catalogue (HIP) data, the mean individual proper motions are −3678 mas·yr−1 (mas/yr) or −3.678 arcsec per year in right ascension and +481.84 mas·yr−1 or 0.48184 arcsec per year in declination.[60][61] As proper motions are cumulative, the motion of Alpha Centauri is about 6.1 arcmin each century, and 61.3 arcmin or 1.02 ° each millennium. These motions are about one-fifth and twice, respectively, the diameter of the full moon.[43] Spectroscopy has determined the mean approaching radial velocity of α Cen AB as −25.1 ± 0.3 km·s−1.[62][63]

A more precise calculation involves taking into account the slight changes in the stellar distance by the star's own motion.[23][43] Alpha Centauri at present is slowly increasing the measured proper motion and trigonometric parallax as the stars approach us.[43][60] Changes are also observed in the size of the semi-major axis 'a' of the orbital ellipse increase by 0.03 arcsec per century as the star currently approach us.[15][64] Also the orbital period of α Cen AB is also slightly shorter by some 0.006 years per century, caused by the change of light time as the distance reduces.[15] Consequentially, the observed position angle of the stars are subject to changes in the orbital elements over time, as first determined by equations by W. H. van den Bos in 1926.[65][66][67] Some slight differences of about 0.5% in the measured proper motions are caused by α Cen AB's orbital motion.[60]

Based on these observed proper motions and radial velocities, Alpha Centauri will continue into the future to slowly brighten, passing just north of the Southern Cross or Crux, before moving northwest and up towards the celestial equator and away from the galactic plane. By about A.D. 29,700, in the present-day constellation of Hydra, α Centauri will be exactly 1.00 pc or 3.26 ly away.[43] Then it will reach the stationary radial velocity (RVel) of 0.0 km·s−1and the maximum apparent magnitude of −0.86v—similar to present day Canopus. Soon after this close approach, the system will then begin to move away from us, showing a positive radial velocity.[43] In A.D. 43,300, α Centauri will pass near 2nd magnitude Alphard / Alpha Hydrae (α Hya). Then the apparent magnitude will be +1.03v at the distance of 1.64 pc or 5.36 ly.

Due to visual perspective, about 100,000 years from now, these stars will reach a final vanishing point and slowly disappear among the countless stars of the Milky Way. Here this once bright yellow star will fall below naked-eye visibility somewhere in the faint present day southern constellation of Telescopium. This unusual location results from α Centauri's orbit around the galactic centre being highly tilted with respect to the plane of our Milky Way galaxy.[43]

Possibility of planets

The discovery of planets orbiting other star systems, including similar binary systems (Gamma Cephei), raises the possibility that planets may exist in the Alpha Centauri system. Such planets could orbit α Cen A or α Cen B individually, or be on large orbits around the binary α Cen AB. Since both the principal stars are fairly similar to the Sun (for example, in age and metallicity), astronomers have been especially interested in making detailed searches for planets in the Alpha Centauri system. Several established planet-hunting teams have used various radial velocity or star transit methods in their searches around these two bright stars.[68] All the observational studies have so far failed to find any evidence for brown dwarfs or gas giant planets.[68][69]

However, computer simulations show that a planet might have been able to form within a distance of 1.1 AU (160 Gm) of Alpha Centauri B and the orbit of that planet may remain stable for at least 250 million years.[70] Bodies around A would be able to orbit at slightly farther distances due to A's stronger gravity. In addition, the lack of any brown dwarfs or gas giants around A and B make the likelihood of terrestrial planets greater than otherwise. Currently, technologies do not allow for terrestrial planets like Earth to be detected around Alpha Centauri (unless they are a few Earth masses and orbiting very close to the star, as in the Gliese 581 and HD 40307 systems, for example), but this is expected to change in the near future, due to better detection instruments.

Alpha Centauri is envisioned as the first target for unmanned interstellar exploration. Crossing the huge distance between the Sun and α Centauri using current spacecraft technologies would take several millennia, though the possibility of space sail, or Nuclear Pulse Fusion technology may cut this down to a matter of decades.[71]

Theoretical planets

Some computer generated models of planetary formation predict the existence of terrestrial planets around both Alpha Centauri A and B.[72][73][74] Other models also suggested that formation of gas giant planets similar to Jupiter and Saturn remain unlikely because of the significant gravitational and angular momentum effects of this binary system.[75] Although highly speculative, given the similarities to the Sun in spectral types, star type, age and probable stability of the orbits, it has been suggested that this stellar system could hold one of the best possibilities for harbouring extraterrestrial life on a potential planet.[76][77][78][79]

Some astronomers speculated that any possible terrestrial planets in the Alpha Centauri system may be bone dry or lack significant atmospheres. In our solar system both Jupiter and Saturn were likely crucial in perturbing comets into the inner solar system. Here the comets provided the inner planets with their own source of water and various other ices[80] but Proxima Centauri may have influenced the planetary disk as the Alpha Centauri system was forming enriching the area round Alpha Centauri A and B with volatile materials.[81] This would be discounted, if for example, α Centauri B happened to have giant gas planets orbiting α Centauri A (or conversely, α Cen A for α Cen B), or if the stars B and A themselves were able to successfully perturb comets into each other's inner system like Jupiter and Saturn presumably have done here. As comets probably also reside in some huge Oort Cloud located to the outer regions of stellar systems, when they are influenced gravitationally by either the giant gas planets or disruptions by passing nearby stars, many of these comets then travel sun-wards.[43] As yet, there is no direct evidence of the existence of such an Oort Cloud around α Centauri AB, and theoretically this may have been totally destroyed during the system's formation.[43]

Any suspected Earth-like planet around Alpha Centauri A would have to be placed about 1.25 AU away—about halfway between the distances of Earth's orbit and Mars' orbit in our own Solar System—so as to have similar planetary temperatures and conditions for liquid water to exist. For the slightly less luminous and cooler Alpha Centauri B, this distance would be closer to its star at about 0.7 AU (100 Gm), being about the distance that Venus is from the Sun.[80][82]

To find evidence of such planets, currently both Proxima Centauri and α Centauri AB are among the listed "Tier 1" target stars for NASA's Space Interferometry Mission (SIM). Detecting planets as small as three Earth-masses or smaller within two Astronomical Units of a "Tier 1" target is possible with this new instrument.[83]

View from this system

Looking toward Sol from Alpha Centauri in Celestia

Viewed from near the Alpha Centauri system, the sky would appear very much as it does for earthbound observers, except that Centaurus would be missing its brightest star. Our Sun would be a yellow +0.5 visual magnitude star in eastern Cassiopeia at the antipodal point of Alpha Centauri's current RA and Dec. at 02h 39m 35s +60° 50' (2000). This place is close to the 3.4 magnitude star ε Cassiopeiae. An interstellar or alien observer would find the \/\/ of Cassiopeia had become a /\/\/ shape.[84]

From Alpha Centauri, most of the familiar constellations like Ursa Major and Orion would appear almost unchanged. Bright stars relatively close to us, such as Sirius, Procyon and Altair, would have markedly different sky positions. Sirius, for example, would become part of Orion, some 2° west of Betelgeuse, and shining a little dimmer than we know it, at −1.2 magnitude. Other similar close bright stars like Arcturus, Fomalhaut and Vega, would be displaced little from their familiar positions in the sky. The closest star would be the low luminosity red dwarf Proxima Centauri at 0.25 ly in distance, shining as an inconspicuous 4.5 magnitude star. Its slow and gradual movement against the background stars would be readily apparent over several decades.[citation needed]

From Proxima itself, α Centauri AB would appear like two close brilliantly bright stars with the combined magnitude of −6.8. Depending on the binary's orbital position, the bright stars would appear noticeably divisible to the naked eye, or occasionally, but briefly, as single unresolved star. Based on the calculated absolute magnitudes, the visual magnitudes of α Cen A and B would be −6.5 and −5.2, respectively.[85]

View from a hypothetical planet

Artist's rendition of the view from a hypothetical airless planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A

Any hypothetical planet orbiting around either α Centauri A or α Centauri B would see an intensely bright star in the sky with a small discernible disk. For example, an Earth-like planet about 1.25 Astronomical unit (AU) from α Cen A (with an orbital period of about one year three months or 1.3(4) a) would get Sun-like illumination from its primary. α Cen B would appear 5.7 to 8.6 magnitudes dimmer than the Sun at visual magnitudes −21.0 to −18.2, respectively, or 190 to 2700 times dimmer than α Cen A, but still 170 to 2300 times brighter than the full moon. Conversely, some similar Earth-like planet at 0.71 A.U. from α Cen B would receive significant illumination from α Cen A, which would shine 4.65 to 7.3 magnitudes dimmer than the Sun at visual magnitudes of −22.1 to −19.4, respectively. Similarly, α Cen B would be 70 to 840 times dimmer or some 520 to 6300 times brighter than the full moon. During this hypothetical planet's year of 0.6(3) a, would see the intensely bright companion star circle an ecliptical path around the sky, but its illumination would not significantly affect climate nor influence plant photosynthesis.[80]

An observer on the hypothetical planet would notice a change in orientation to VLBI reference points commensurate with the binary orbit periodicity plus or minus any local effects such as precession or nutation. Assuming this hypothetical planet had a low orbital inclination with respect to the mutual orbit of α Cen A and B, then the secondary star would start beside the primary at 'stellar' conjunction. Half the period later, at 'stellar' opposition, both stars would be opposite each other in the sky. Then, for about half the planetary year the appearance of the night sky would be dark blue — similar to the sky during totality at any total solar eclipse. Humans could easily walk around and clearly see the surrounding terrain. Also reading a book would be quite possible without any artificial light.[80] After another half period in the stellar orbit, the stars would complete their orbital cycle and return to the next stellar conjunction, and the familiar Earth-like day and night cycle would return.

Origin of name and cultural significance

This prominent southern star commonly bears the proper name Rigil Kentaurus[86] (often shortened to Rigil Kent,[87] former Rigjl Kentaurus;[88][89] Riguel Kentaurus[90] in Portuguese), derived from the Arabic phrase Rijl Qantūris[87] (or Rijl al-Qantūris,[91] meaning "Foot of the Centaur)", but is most often referred to by its Bayer designation Alpha Centauri. An alternative name is Toliman, whose etymology may be Arabic al-Zulmān ("the Ostriches").[87] During the 19th century, the northern amateur popularist Elijah H. Burritt called the star Bungula,[92] possibly coined from "β" and the Latin ungula ("hoof").[87] This latter name is rarely used today. In Chinese, Alpha Centauri is Nánmén'èr (南門二), "Second Star of the Southern Gate". Together, Alpha and Beta Centauri form the "Southern Pointers", as they point towards Crux, the asterism of the Southern Cross.


Alpha Centauri is pronounced /ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/, rhyming with story, or more classically /ˈælfə sɛnˈtaʊri/, rhyming with dowry.

Use in modern fiction

Alpha Centauri's relative proximity makes it in some ways likely the logical choice as "first port of call". Speculative fiction about interstellar travel often predicts eventual human exploration, and even the discovery and colonization of planetary systems. These themes are common to many works of science fiction and video games.

See also


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  2. ^ "LHS 51 -- High proper-motion Star". Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg.*%20alf%20Cen%20B. Retrieved 2008-06-06. 
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  6. ^ a b Gilli G.; Israelian G.; Ecuvillon A.; Santos NC.; Mayor M. (2006). "Abundances of Refractory Elements in the Atmospheres of Stars with Extrasolar Planets". Astronomy and Astrophysics 449 (2): 723–36. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20053850. Retrieved 2007-06-01. 
  7. ^ a b c d Bazot, M.; Bouchy, F.; Kjeldsen, H.; Charpinet, S.; Laymand, M.; Vauclair, S. (2007). "Asteroseismology of α Centauri A. Evidence of rotational splitting". Astronomy and Astrophysics 470: 295–302. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20065694. 
  8. ^ Pourbaix, D.; Nidever, D.; McCarthy, C.; Butler, R. P.; Tinney, C. G.; Marcy, G. W.; Jones, H. R. A.; Penny, A. J. et al. (2002). "Constraining the difference in convective blueshift between the components of alpha Centauri with precise radial velocities". Astronomy and Astrophysics 386 (1): 208–85. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20020287. Retrieved 2008-06-15. 
  9. ^ Söderhjelm, Staffan (1999). "Visual binary orbits and masses post Hipparcos". Astronomy and Astrophysics 341 (1): 121–40. Retrieved 2008-10-27. 
  10. ^ a b Mason, B.D.; Wycoff, G.L. I. Hartkopf, W.I.. (2008). "Washington Visual Double Star Catalog, 2006.5 (WDS)". U. S.Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C.. 
  11. ^ Burnham, Robert (1978). Burnham's Celestial Handbook. Courier Dover Publications. p. 549. ISBN 048623567X. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, GSU (2007-09-17). "The One Hundred Nearest Star Systems". RECONS. Retrieved 2007-11-06. 
  13. ^ Guinan, E.; Messina, S. (1995). "IAU Circular 6259, Alpha Centauri B". Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. 
  14. ^ Robrade, J.; Schmitt, J. H. M. M.; Favata, F. (2005). "X-rays from α Centauri — The darkening of the solar twin". Astronomy and Astrophysics 442 (1): 315–321. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20053314. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  15. ^ a b c d e Heintz, W. D. (1978). Double Stars. D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht. p. 19. ISBN 9027708851. 
  16. ^ Worley, C.E.; Douglass, G.G. (1996). Washington Visual Double Star Catalog, 1996.0 (WDS). U. S.Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C.. 
  17. ^ Van Zyl, Johannes Ebenhaezer (1996). Unveiling the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy. Springer. ISBN 3540760237. 
  18. ^ a b c d Hartung, E.J.; Frew, David Malin, David (1994). "Astronomical Objects for Southern Telescopes". Cambridge University Press. 
  19. ^ a b c Norton, A.P., Ed. I. Ridpath "Norton's 2000.0 :Star Atlas and Reference Handbook", Longman Scientific and Technical, 1986, p. 39–40
  20. ^ Mitton, Jacquelin. "The Penguin Dictionary of Astronomy", Penguin (1993) p. 148
  21. ^ This is calculated for a fixed latitude by knowing the star's declination (δ) using the formulae (90°+ δ). Alpha Centauri's declination is −60° 50′, so the latitude where the star is circumpolar will be south of −29° 10′S or 29°. Similarly, the place where Alpha Centauri never rises for northern observers is north of the latitude (90°+ δ) N or +29°N.
  22. ^ "'The '"Constellations : Part 2 Culmination Times"'". Southern Astronomical Delights. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  23. ^ a b c d e f Matthews, R.A.J. (1993). "Is Proxima really in orbit about α Cen A/B?". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 261: L5. 
  24. ^ Page, A.A. (1982). "Mount Tamborine Observatory". International Amateur-Professional Photoelectric Photometry Communication 10: 26. 
  25. ^ Aitken, R.G., "The Binary Stars", Dover, 1961, p. 1.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hartkopf, W.; Mason, D. M. (2008). "Sixth Catalog of Orbits of Visual Binaries". U. S.Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C.. 
  27. ^ Herschel, J.F.W. (1847). Results of Astronomical Observations made during the years 1834,5,6,7,8 at the Cape of Good Hope; being the completion of a telescopic survey of the whole surface of the visible heavens, commenced in 1825.. Smith, Elder and Co, London. 
  28. ^ a b c Kamper, K.W.; Wesselink, A. J. (1978). "Alpha and Proxima Centauri". Astronomical Journal 83: 1653. doi:10.1086/112378. 
  29. ^ Aitken, R.G., "The Binary Stars", Dover, 1961, pp. 236–237.
  30. ^ "Sixth Catalogue of Orbits of Visual Binary Stars : Ephemeris (2008)". U.S.N.O.. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  31. ^ Pannekoek, A.., "A Short History of Astronomy", Dover, 1989, pp. 345–6
  32. ^ "The Hipparcos Catalogue -- R.A. 14h-19h, HIP: 68301-93276" (PDF). ESA. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  33. ^ "Hipparcos Data Vol.8. (1997)". ESA. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  34. ^ "The 150 Stars in the Hipparcos Catalogue Closest to the Sun (1997)". ESA. http://HIPPARCOS&page=table361. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  35. ^ "Contents of the Hipparcos Catalogue (1997)" (PDF). ESA. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  36. ^ a b Aitken, R.G., "The Binary Stars", Dover, 1961, p. 236.
  37. ^ [(11.2 + 35.6) / 2]3 / 79.912 = 2.0, see formula
  38. ^ Kim, Y-C. J. (1999). "Standard Stellar Models; alpha Cen A and B". Journal of the Korean Astronomical Society 32: 120. 
  39. ^ Kim, Y-C. J. (1999). "Standard Stellar Models; alpha Cen A and B". Journal of the Korean Astronomical Society 32: 119. 
  40. ^
  41. ^ a b c Aitken, R.G., "The Binary Stars", Dover, 1961, p. 235.
  42. ^ Anosova, J (1994). "Dynamics of nearby multiple stars. The α system". Astronomy and Astrophysics 292: 115. 
  43. ^ a b c d e f g h i Matthews, R.A.J. (1994). "The Close Approach of Stars in the Solar Neighbourhood". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 35: 1–8. 
  44. ^ Wetheimer, J.G.. ""Are Proxima and Alpha Centauri Gravitationally Bound?" (2008)". 
  45. ^ Ségransan, D.; Kervella, P.; Forveille, T.; Queloz, D. (2003). "First radius measurements of very low mass stars with the VLTI". Astronomy and Astrophysics 397: L5–L8. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20021714. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  46. ^ ESA :Hipparcos Site. "High-Proper Motion Stars (2004)". 
  47. ^ Aristotle. "De Caelo (On the Heavens): Book II. Part 11. (2004)". 
  48. ^ Berry, A., "A History of Astronomy", Dover, 1989, pp. 357–358
  49. ^ Pannekoek, A., "A Short History of Astronomy", Dover, 1989.
  50. ^ Holberg, JB (2007). Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky. Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing. pp. 41–42. ISBN 0-387-48941-X. 
  51. ^ Tung, Brian. "Star Catalogue of Ptolemy". The Astronomy Corner: Reference (2006). 
  52. ^ Newton R.R., "The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy", T. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, (1977).
  53. ^ Pannekoek, A., "A Short History of Astronomy", Dover, 1989, p. 157.
  54. ^ Grasshoff, G. (1990). The History of Ptolemy's Star Catalogue. Springer, New York. p. 319–394. 
  55. ^ Astronomical Society of South Africa. "Henderson, Thomas [FRS (2008)"]. 
  56. ^ Henderson, H. (1839). "On the parallax of α Centauri". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 4: 168. 
  57. ^ Pannekoek, A., "A Short History of Astronomy", Dover, 1989, p. 333
  58. ^ Maclear, M. (1851). "Determination of Parallax of α1and α2 Centauri". Astronomische Nachrichten 32: 243. doi:10.1002/asna.18510321606. 
  59. ^ N.L., de La Caillé; Raven-Hart, R. (trans.& ed.) (1976). Travels at the Cape, 1751–53: an annotated translation of Journal historique du voyage fait au Cap de Bonne-Espérance.. Cape Town. ISBN 0869610686. 
  60. ^ a b c Space Agency: The Hipparcos and Tycho Catalogues Search facility(2008)
  61. ^ Proper motions are expressed in smaller angular units than arcsec, being measured in milli-arcsec *mas.) or one-thousandth of an arcsec. A negative value for proper motion in RA indicates the sky motion is east to west, in Declination north to south.
  62. ^ Nordström, B; Mayor, M.; Andersen, J.; Holmberg, J.; Pont, F.; Jørgensen, B. R.; Olsen, E. H.; Udry, S. et al. (2004). "The Geneva-Copenhagen survey of the Solar neighbourhood. Ages, metallicities, and kinematic properties of ~14000 F and G dwarfs.". Astronomy & Astrophysics 418: 989–1019. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20035959. 
  63. ^ HD 128620/1, database entry, The Geneva-Copenhagen Survey of Solar neighbourhood, J. Holmberg et al., 2007, CDS ID V/117A. Accessed on line November 19, 2008.
  64. ^ The semi-major axis size is calculated from the changing radial velocity (V) in km·s−1, the distance of the Sun to α Cen AB is therefore V / 4.74 AU.yr−1. Using the trigonometric parallax π in arcsec, the changes in a are found using Δa  = −1.0227×10−6 × a × V × π  yr−1. Period changes (Tp) are calculated by Tp = P × (1 − V/c), where c is the speed of light in km·s−1.
  65. ^ van den Bos, W. H. (1926). "A Table of Orbits of Visual Binary Stars (aka. First Orbit Catalogue of Binary Stars)". Bulletin of the Astronomical Institutes of the Netherlands 3: 149. 
  66. ^ van den Bos, W. H. (1926). "Table of Visual Binary Stars". Union Observatory Circular 2: 356. 
  67. ^ Calculated as; θ − θo = μα × sin α × (t − to ), where; α = right ascension (in degrees), μα is the common proper motion (cpm.) expressed in degrees, and θ and θo are the current position angle and calculated position angle at the different epochs.
  68. ^ a b "Why Haven't Planets Been Detected around Alpha Centauri". Universe Today. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  69. ^ Tim Stephens. ""Nearby star should harbor detectable, Earth-like planets (7 March 2008)"". News & Events. UC Santa Cruz. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  70. ^ Thebault, P., Marzazi, F., Scholl, H.. "Planet formation in the habitable zone of alpha centauri B". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 
  71. ^ Ian O'Neill, Ian. "How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star? 08 July 2008". Universe Today. 
  72. ^ Javiera Guedes, Terrestrial Planet Formation Around Alpha Cen B
  73. ^ see Lissauer and Quintana in references below
  74. ^ Javiera M. Guedes, Eugenio J. Rivera, Erica Davis, Gregory Laughlin, Elisa V. Quintana, Debra A. Fischer (to be published in 2008). "Formation and Detectability of Terrestrial Planets Around Alpha Centauri B". Astrophysical Journal. 
  75. ^ M. Barbieri, F. Marzari, H. Scholl (2002). "Formation of terrestrial planets in close binary systems: The case of α Centauri A". Astronomy & Astrophysics 396: 219 – 224. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20021357. 
  76. ^ P.A. Wiegert and M.J. Holman (1997). "The stability of planets in the Alpha Centauri system". The Astronomical Journal 113: 1445 – 1450. doi:10.1086/118360. 
  77. ^ Lissauer, J. J., E. V. Quintana, J. E. Chambers, M. J. Duncan, and F. C. Adams. (2004). "Terrestrial Planet Formation in Binary Star Systems". Revista Mexicana de Astronomia y Astrofisica (Serie de Conferencias); First Astrophysics meeting of the Observatorio Astronomico Nacional: Gravitational Collapse: from Massive Stars to Planets 22: 99–103. 
  78. ^ Quintana, E. V.; Lissauer, J. J.; Chambers, J. E.; Duncan, M. J.; (2002). "Terrestrial Planet Formation in the Alpha Centauri System". Astrophysical Journal 2: 982–996. doi:10.1086/341808. 
  79. ^ Quintana, E. V.; Lissauer, J. J.; (2007). "Terrestrial Planet Formation in Binary Star Systems". Planets in Binary Star Systems (Springer publishing company). 
  80. ^ a b c d Croswell, K. (April 1991). "Does Alpha Centauri Have Intelligent Life?". Astronomy 19: 28–37. 
  81. ^
  82. ^ "If Alpha Centauri Has Earth-like Planets, Can We Detect Them?". Universe Today. Retrieved 2008-03-10. 
  83. ^ "Planet Hunting by Numbers", (Press Release), NASA, Stars and Galaxies, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 18 October 2006. Retrieved 24 April 2007.
  84. ^ The coordinates of the Sun would be diametrically opposite α Cen AB, at α=02h 39m 36.4951s, δ=+60° 50′ 02.308″
  85. ^ Computed; using in solar terms: 1.1 Mʘ and 0.92Mʘ, luminosities 1.57 and 0.51 L*/Lʘ, Sun magnitude −26.73v), 11.2 to 35.6 AU orbit; The minimum luminosity adds planet's orbital radius to A–B distance (max) (conjunction). Max. luminosity subtracts the planet's orbital radius to A–B distance (min) (opposition).
  86. ^ Bailey, F., "The Catalogues of Ptolemy, Ulugh Beigh, Tycho Brahe, Halley, and Hevelius", Memoirs of Royal Astronomical Society, vol. XIII, London, 1843.
  87. ^ a b c d Kunitzsch P., & Smart, T., A Dictionary of Modern star Names: A Short Guide to 254 Star Names and Their Derivations, Cambride, Sky Pub. Corp., 2006, p. 27
  88. ^ Hyde T., "Ulugh Beighi Tabulae Stellarum Fixarum", Tabulae Long. ac Lat. Stellarum Fixarum ex Observatione Ulugh Beighi, Oxford, 1665, p. 142.
  89. ^ Hyde T., "In Ulugh Beighi Tabulae Stellarum Fixarum Commentarii", op. cit., p. 67.
  90. ^ da Silva Oliveira, R., "Crux Australis: o Cruzeiro do Sul", Artigos: Planetario Movel Inflavel AsterDomus.
  91. ^ Davis Jr., G. A., "The Pronunciations, Derivations, and Meanings of a Selected List of Star Names,"Popular Astronomy, Vol. LII, No. 3, Oct. 1944, p. 16.
  92. ^ Burritt, E. H., Atlas, Designed to Illustrate the Geography of the Heavens, (New Edition), New York, F. J. Huntington and Co., 1835, pl. VII.

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Coordinates: Sky map 14h 39m 36.4951s, −60° 50′ 02.308″

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Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Box artwork for Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.
Developer(s) Firaxis Games
Designer(s) Brian Reynolds, Sid Meier, Timothy Train, Douglas Kaufman, Bing Gordon
Release date(s)
Mac OS
 February, 2000
 April, 2001
Genre(s) Turn-based strategy
System(s) Windows, Mac OS, Linux
ELSPA: Ages 3+
ESRB: Everyone
System requirements (help)
CPU clock speed


System RAM


Disk space


Expansion pack(s) Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire
Series Civilization

Table of Contents

Simple English

Alpha Centauri is the brightest star system in the southern Centaurus constellation. It is the fourth brightest star in the night sky, with a magnitude of -0.01. It is visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and is too far south for most of the Northern Hemisphere to see.

It is the closest star system to our own, being 4.2-4.4 light years (ly) away.

To the naked eye, the two brightest parts of the system are too close for the eye to be able to see them as separate stars.


Its proper name is Rigil Kentaurus (often shortened to Rigil Kent), which comes from the Arabic phrase Al Rijl al Kentaurus, meaning "foot of the centaur", but is usually referred to by its Bayer name Alpha Centauri. Another name is Toliman. It is also sometimes known as Bungula, possibly from the Latin word ungula meaning "hoof". It and Beta Centauri (which is close to Alpha Centauri in angular distance as seen from the Earth, but is actually many light-years away) are the "Pointers" to the Southern Cross.

Alpha Centauri A is also known as HD 128620, HR 5459, CP-60°5483, GCTP 3309.00A, and LHS 50. Alpha Centauri B is also known as HD 128621, HR 5460, GCTP 3309.00B, and LHS 51.


Alpha Centauri is a triple star system. It consists of two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B (which form a binary star together) at a distance of 4.36 ly, and a dimmer red dwarf named Proxima Centauri at a distance of 4.22 ly. Both of the two main stars are rather similar to the Sun. The larger star, Alpha Centauri A, is the most similar to the Sun, but a little larger and brighter.

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