Alpha Centauri ăl´fə sĕntôr´ē [key], brightest star in the constellation Centaurus and 3d-brightest star in the sky; also known as Rigil Kent or Rigil Kentaurus; 1992 position R.A. 14h39.1m, Dec. −60°49′. Its apparent magnitude is −0.26. Alpha Centauri is actually a triple-star system, the components being designated A, B, and C. Alpha Centauri A is the brightest component; it is a yellow main-sequence star of the same spectral class (G2 V) as the sun and of about the same size and mass. It forms a binary system with the somewhat smaller, less bright, and more orange Alpha Centauri B. Alpha Centauri C, a red dwarf, is also called
Proxima Centauri because it is the closest star to the earth (other than the sun), at a distance of 4.28 light-years; components A and B are currently 4.34 light-years away. Proxima Centauri orbits about the common center of mass of the system with a period of more than 250,000 years, so that in about 125,000 years it will be more distant than A and B. In 2012 the discovery of a roughly earth-sized planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B was announced; the planet was reported to orbit the star closer than Mercury orbits the sun. A roughly earth-sized planet has also been identified (2016) orbiting Proxima Centauri. Though it orbits its star much more closely than the Mercury does the sun, it is believed to be in the habitable zone because of the cooler temperatures of Proxima Centauri; however, the star is of a type that tends to produce solar flares readily, which would bombard the nearby planet with high levels of radiation and strip any atmosphere from it.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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