Today I just want to share a thing that came up during my research for last week’s episode of Sciency Words. It has to do with our next-door neighbors, the Alpha Centauri star system.
Alpha Centauri is, famously, the nearest star system to our own Solar System. As such, Alpha Centauri gets a lot of love from science fiction writers. So many space aliens come from there, and so many human space adventurers will be heading Alpha Centauri’s way, just as soon as we invent faster-than-light technology.
Alpha Centauri is also, famously, a binary star system: two stars locked in orbit together1. But the way the Alpha Centauri binary is portrayed in science fiction is… well, I think a lot of Sci-Fi writers get this wrong. I know I’ve gotten it wrong in the past.
Which brings me to the thing I want to share with you today. It’s a simple but absolutely perfect visualization of the way Alpha Centauri A and B dance around their common center of mass (a.k.a. their barycenter).
In my experience, a lot of science fiction writers make it sound like Alpha Centauri A and B are right next to each other. They make it sound like you could stand on the surface of a planet, look up, and see two suns side by side, like you’re Luke Skywalker watching the double sunset on Tattooine.
But even at closest approach, Alpha Centauri A and B are approximately 11 astronomical units apart (roughly equivalent to the distance between the Sun and Saturn). And at maximum separation, they’re approximately 36 astronomical units apart (roughly equivalent to the distance between the Sun and Pluto).
Yes, watching a double sunset like that scene in Star Wars would be incredible. But this figure-eight dance that happens in Alpha Centauri (and in many other binary star systems too) is even more amazing, in my opinion.
Next time on Planet Pailly, we’ll meet some insects who would really appreciate it if we’d change their name already.
1 Umm, actually Alpha Centauri has three stars: two Sun-like stars in the middle and a tiny red dwarf star orbiting much farther out.