If faster-than-light space travel ever becomes routine, a good destination for a weekend getaway might be the closest star beyond the Sun -- Proxima Centauri. It's just four and a quarter light-years away, and the view should be spectacular.
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf. It's far smaller, cooler, and less massive than the Sun. And it's so faint that from Earth, you need a telescope to see it.
Even so, from up close, the star would be quite impressive, because Proxima Centauri produces frequent outbursts of X-rays -- big flares that could be deadly if you flew too close.
The star is so active because the whole thing is bubbling like a big pot of soup. Hot gas rises from the star's core, cools as it reaches the surface, then drops back to the center.
This process creates a strong magnetic field that gets twisted and tangled as the star rotates. So Proxima Centauri has gigantic dark "storms" on its surface. They're much bigger in relation to the star's size than similar storms on the Sun. The lines of the magnetic field frequently tangle and snap, producing electrical "short circuits" that blast energy and particles into space.
These outbursts would be bad news for any life around the star. But so far, there's no evidence of planets around Proxima Centauri, which means no place for life. So future visitors may not be able to touch down when they get to Proxima Centauri -- they'll have to watch the busy star from space.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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