The constellation Ophiuchus climbs high across the southern sky on June nights. It's home to a faint red star that ought to be a lot more famous than it is. Many people know that the closest star system to the Sun is Alpha Centauri, which is a bit more than four light-years from Earth. But few know that the second-closest star is Barnard's Star, named for astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard, who discovered it in 1916.
In recent years, a team led by Texas astronomer Fritz Benedict used Hubble Space Telescope to measure the distance to Barnard's Star with incredible precision. The team found that the star is just 5.98 light-years from Earth.
Despite its proximity, Barnard's Star is anything but prominent. It's a red dwarf -- a type of star that's far smaller, cooler, and fainter than the Sun. As a result, you can't see Barnard's Star without a telescope or a good pair of binoculars.
In contrast, if you lived on a planet orbiting Barnard's Star, the Sun would be a dazzler. And it would appear near the most spectacular constellation: Orion, the hunter. From Earth, Orion sports a prominent Belt of three bright stars. But from Barnard's Star, a fourth star would appear a few degrees from the Belt -- the Sun. In fact, it would outshine all of the stars in the Belt.
So if Barnard's Star has planets with intelligent beings, they probably know a lot more about our star than most people on Earth know about theirs.
Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2009
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