Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Hannah FL. Hannah FL Wonders, “What is Proxima Centauri?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Hannah FL!

You probably already know the names of the planets in this solar system. Maybe you can name the constellations and even a few comets. But how many individual stars can you think of?

Many kids might immediately think of the North Star. Space enthusiasts may name Sirius, Antares, or Canopus. But today’s Wonder of the Day is about a star whose name you may not have heard. Regardless, it’s still the closest star to Earth, other than the Sun. It’s name? Proxima Centauri!

Compared to the rest of the universe, Proxima Centauri may as well be our solar system’s next door neighbor. Still, you won’t be able to see it, even on the clearest night, without a powerful telescope. That’s because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, one of the smallest and dimmest types of stars.

How far away is Proxima Centauri? About 4.2 light-years. That may not sound far, but for our current methods of space travel, it definitely is! It would take today’s spacecraft more than 70,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri.

Once humans reached Proxima Centauri, though, they’d have a whole star system to explore. It’s called the Alpha Centauri system. It contains two other stars—Alpha Centauri A and B. Proxima Centauri is also orbited by two planets, one of which is in its habitable zone.

Called Proxima Centauri B, this planet may be close enough to Proxima Centauri for liquid water to exist there. However, scientists aren’t ready to deem the planet safe for human life. Due to stellar flares from Proxima Centauri, the planet may have little or no atmosphere.

In fact, a flare in April 2021 from Proxima Centauri was 100 times stronger than any recorded flares from our own Sun. Flares like this one would be a threat to any life on the star’s nearby planets. It’s unlikely that humans would ever be able to live on Proxima Centauri B without special shelter for protection.

Still, many people hold out hope for signs of life from the Alpha Centauri system. This was bolstered in late 2020. The cause was the discovery of a strange signal that may have come from the direction of this system. The signal was actually received in April 2019 but wasn’t noticed until over a year later.

What makes the signal interesting? It was read at 982.002 megahertz. It’s not normal for signals from satellites and spacecraft from Earth to occupy this band. This made scientists even more curious about where this signal originated.

The signal’s source is still unclear. However, experts warn that it probably didn’t come from alien life. The signal was most likely caused by some human-made object.

Still, others hold out hope that the signal could be a sign of intelligent life. What do you think? Would you want to meet aliens from our solar system’s closest neighbor? Perhaps you’d rather travel to Proxima Centauri B yourself!

Standards: NGSS.ESS1.A, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2

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