If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you probably know Earth is somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant, and you might know the planet Vulcan, Spock’s home world, is about 16 light-years away. But what else is in our neighborhood? Earth is in the Solar System (that is the proper name, since the Sun’s name is “Sol”). The Solar System is in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, which is part of the Virgo Super Cluster.
As a resource for science fiction writers, I thought it would be nice to compile a list of other things that are, in astronomical terms, near us.
- The nearest star (other than Sol) is Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star that may be part of the Alpha Centauri star system. The next closest star (after Alpha Centauri) is Barnard’s Star, another red dwarf, followed by Wolf 359, which is well known to Trekkies.
- The nearest star cluster is the Hyades, an open cluster about 150 light-years away. There are three hundred to four hundred stars within a 33 light-year radius, most of them near the center. The better-known Pleiades Star Cluster is about 450 light-years away.
- The nearest planetary nebula is the Helix Nebula (pictured above), also known as the “Eye of God.” In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful things in the sky, and it’s a mere 700 light-years away.
- The nearest star-forming region is the Orion Nebula, a little more than 1,300 light-years from Earth. It’s large enough and bright enough to see with the naked eye. On a clear night with relatively low light pollution, look for Orion’s Belt; the nebula is a fuzzy blob below the middle star. Much of what we know about star and planet formation we learned from the Orion Nebula.
- Contrary to popular belief, Andromeda is not the nearest galaxy. That honor goes to the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy. In fact, there are a lot of dwarf galaxies, including the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, orbiting the Milky Way, and more orbiting Andromeda.
- Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy. It’s 2.5 million light-years away… and closing. Five billion years into the future, the Milky Way and Andromeda are expected to collide. The Pinwheel Galaxy (a.k.a. the Triangulum Galaxy) is also nearby… only 3 million light-years away.
You probably already knew about some off these “nearby” objects. Alpha Centauri and Andromeda are fairly well known to anyone who follows science fiction, but I for one had never heard of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy before. Hopefully, we’ve all learned something about the neighborhood we live in.
P.S.: The planet Vulcan orbits a star named 40 Eridani A, which is about 16 light years away. At warp 9, we could be there next week!
P.P.S.: Warp velocity is determined by the equation v = w3c where v is velocity, w is the warp factor, and c is the speed of light. I got the equation from Wikipedia.