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Neighboring Alpha Centauri stars look friendly to life

The star system is our next-door neighbor in the galaxy. New data shows it might be hospitable, too.

alphacen-xray

An x-ray image of Alpha Centauri A/B

Chandra/Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to Earth, and new research indicates the two main stars there might be friendly to life.

"The Alpha Centuari system will be the first stop for interstellar travelers from Earth," Tom Ayres of the University of Colorado at Boulder told reporters at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Denver. "The age of the system is similar to the sun, which is good for the development of life."

Ayres' research uses 13 years of data from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory to look at the x-ray radiation thrown off by the three stars making up the Alpha Centauri system. It finds that the "space weather" around the two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, is actually quite favorable to the formation of life.

Space weather refers to the particles thrown off by stars, including big flares of x-ray radiation that can strip away atmospheres and sterilize planets without protective magnetic fields like the one that keeps us from being fried by our own sun here on Earth. 

Alpha Centauri A actually puts out less x-ray radiation than our own sun. Its nearby partner star, Alpha Centauri B, throws off more of the radiation than our star, but not enough to make Ayres existentially concerned for anyone or anything that might be orbiting it.

"It's probably okay, it's not crazy higher than the sun," explained Ayres.  "Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars."

Ayres' presentation expanded upon results that were published earlier this year in the journal Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society.

So far, a planet has only been discovered around the third Alpha Centauri star, known as Alpha Cen C or Proxima Centauri. This ancient dwarf star is highly active, bathing the Earth-like planet Proxima b in deadly radiation

"You wouldn't want to go there unless you wore a big lead suit," Ayres said.

Fortunately, Proxima Centauri keeps a significant distance from the other two, larger stars and their attendant habitable zones. 

All of Alpha Centauri lies more than four light years away from us, making it unlikely any astronauts will make the trip there anytime soon. However, the Breakthrough Starshot initiative has proposed to use powerful Earth-based lasers to propel tiny nanocraft towards the system at one-fifth the speed of light. 

If successful, we could see up-close imagery of just how lively the Alpha Centauri neighborhood really is in just a few short decades. 

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