Looking back from a distance, whether that be time or physical separation, can provide us with a fresh perspective on who we are and how far we've come. In our daily lives, Earth appears flat and limitless under the shielding blue sky, but seen from afar it's a little ball suspended in the incomprehensible vastness of outer space. Just looking at the photo below makes us all feel a little closer.
Every one of us will spend our entire life going around a single star, the sun. We celebrate each orbit with a birthday. Birthdays humanize a maddeningly repetitive cosmic cycle. That's our job though, right?. To soften the edges of existence and create meaning in life through love, curiosity and purpose.
In the modern era, space missions like Apollo and Voyager have provided fresh perspectives on how we see Earth in a cosmic setting. We can do the same for the sun by taking an imaginary trip to next nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. From here we can look back at our own solar system from a new vantage point.
Alpha Centauri is a triple star in Centaurus the centaur, a constellation best visible from the southern hemisphere. The brightest stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, appear as a single star to the naked eye, but a small telescope will split them into a brilliant, close pair. Both are similar to the sun in size and located 4.37 light years or about 26,000,000,000,000 (trillion) miles away. Alpha Centauri C, better known as Proxima Centauri, is a smidge closer than the bright binary at 4.24 light years.
Proxima is a much fainter, smaller and less massive star called a red dwarf about one-seventh the diameter of the sun. While Alpha Centauri AB is the third brightest nighttime star after Sirius and Canopus, Proxima shines meekly at magnitude 11.1 and requires a small telescope to see. But it has something its brighter, bigger siblings don't have — planets. If we're going to look back at the sun it would be nice to do it from the surface of a planet just as we look up into the sky from Earth's surface.
The innermost of the Proxima's two planets, called Proxima Centauri b, is a rocky sphere just 1.17 times the mass of Earth that orbits just 4.7 million miles (7.5 million km) from its host sun. While that's close, remember that Proxima is far cooler and fainter than our sun, so the planet lies within the "Goldilocks Zone," where liquid water could exist on its surface. Not that we have any evidence of that yet, just that it's possible.
Standing on the surface of Proxima b the sky would appear very similar to the one on Earth. That's because the majority of stars that make up the constellations are so far away that they shift only a little when we travel 4.24 light years away, the same way the moon appears in the same spot in the sky from one end of my home town to another. Four light years is a drop in the bucket when it comes to celestial distances.
Where might we find the sun from Proxima, or for that matter from anywhere in the Alpha Centauri system? As you scanned the sky and your gaze landed on the familiar W of Cassiopeia you'd instantly notice a brilliant star below and to its left. Yep, that's it — the sun! At magnitude 0.4 it would appear as bright as Betelgeuse in Orion or Procyon in the Little Dog (Canis Minor). Located where it is, the sun would stretch Cassiopeia's shape into a striking zigzag that inhabitants of the planet would find as eye-catching as Orion's Belt. The next time you go out at night, look high in the northern sky for the W and imagine the sun right next to it.
Even in a large telescope there'd be no hint of our solar system's planets, just a brilliant, starry point in the blackness of space. Only specialized instruments would be able to detect the sun's slight wobble caused by the gravitational tugs of the planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn. Otherwise the sun would appear identical to a bright star viewed from Earth.
It makes me smile knowing that the light of our lives holds a prominent place in Proxima b's sky. But if we power up our rocket ship and travel farther and farther from the sun, it becomes fainter and fainter. From a couple hundred light years it merges into the smoky band of the Milky Way as one of the more than 250 billion suns in our galaxy.
How quickly we blend into the cosmos and disappear! Yet as small and seemingly insignificant as our planet appears, there's no place like home.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.