Explore the Closest Stars to the Sun

Our Sun is one of several hundred million stars in the Milky Way. It lies in an arm of the galaxy called the Orion Arm, and is about 26,000 light-years from the galaxy's center.  That puts it in the "suburbs" of our stellar city. 

Stars aren't bunched up out here in this neck of the galactic woods as they are in the core and in the globular clusters. In those regions, stars are often much less than a light-year apart, and even closer in the densely packed clusters! Our here in the galactic boonies, our closest stellar neighbor is still far enough away that it would take a spaceship hundreds of years to get there (unless it could travel at light-speed).

How Close is Close? 

As you'll read below, the closest star to us is only 4.2 light-years away. That may seem close, but it's a long way if you're going to climb aboard a space ship and go there. But, in the grand scheme of the galaxy, it's right next door. 

Any future star travel is going to require long journeys or warp drive before humans can successfully explore far-off lands and stars in even our closest neighborhood. Until we get there, here are some looks at the closest stars in the neighborhood. Let's explore! 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

1280px-Alpha-_Beta_and_Proxima_Centauri.jpg
The closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri is marked with a red circle, close to the bright stars Alpha Centauri A and B. Courtesy Skatebiker/Wikimedia Commons.

That closest star mentioned above? It's this one: Proxima Centauri. Astronomers think it might have a planet nearby, which would be quite interesting to study.

Proxima will not always be the closest star. That's because stars do move through space. Proxima Centauri is the third star in the Alpha Centauri star system, and it's also known as Alpha Centauri C. The others are Alpha Centauri AB (a twin set). The three stars are in a complex orbital dance that brings each member closer to the Sun at some point in their mutual orbits.  So, in the distant future, another of its companions will be closer to Earth. It won't be a huge difference in distance, so any future star travellers won't have to worry too much about not having enough fuel to get there.

However, other stars (such as Ross 248) will come even closer. Stellar motions through the galaxy bring changes in star positions all the time. 

One interesting mission HAS been proposed to visit these stars. It would send "nanoprobes" on fast trips, powered by light sails that could accelerate them to 20 percent of the speed of light. They would arrive a few decades after leaving Earth, and send back information about what they find! 

  • Distance: 4.2 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M5.5Vc
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02
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Rigil Kentaurus

1280px-Alpha-_Beta_and_Proxima_Centauri.jpg
Alpha Centauri A and B. The closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri is marked with a red circle, close to the bright stars Alpha Centauri A and B. Courtesy Skatebiker/Wikimedia Commons.

The second closest star is a tie between the sister stars of Proxima Centauri. Alpha Centauri A and B make up the other two stars of the triple star system Alpha Centauri. 

This star will eventually be the closest to us, but not for a long time!  And, like its sibling star, if humans can get a probe out to visit it, we could earn more about this star system that's so close, yet so far away. 

  • Distance: 4.3 light-years
  • Spectral Type: G2V
03
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Barnard's Star

Barnard's Star
Barnard's Star. Steve Quirk, Wikimedia Commons.

This is a faint red dwarf star, discovered in 1916 by E. E. Barnard. Recent efforts to discover planets around Barnard's Star have failed but astronomers continue to monitor it for signs of exoplanets.

So far, none have been found. If they did exist, and if they were to be habitable, they'd probably be orbiting very close to their star in order to get enough heat to support life and liquid water on the planetary surfaces. 

  • Distance: 5.9 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M3.8V
04
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Wolf 359

Wolfe 359
Wolf 359 is the reddish-orange star just above the center in this image. Klaus Hohmann, public domain via Wikimedia.

This star is known to many as the location of a famous battle between the Federation and the Borg on Star Trek, the Next Generation. Wolf 359 is a red dwarf. It is so small that if it were to replace our Sun, an observer on Earth would need a telescope to see it clearly.

  • Distance: 7.7 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M5.8Vc
red dwarf star
An artist's concept of a red dwarf star with a possible planet. If Lalande 21185 had a planet, it might look like this. NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

While it is the fifth closest star to our own Sun, Lalande 21185 is about three times too faint to be seen with the naked eye. You'd need a good telescope to pick out this red dwarf in the night sky.

If you were on a world nearby, it would still be a faint-looking star, but much bigger in your sky. That world might be orbiting very close to its star. So far, however, no planets have been found at this star. 

  • Distance: 8.26 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M2V
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An x-ray view of Gliese 65, also known as Luyten 726-8. Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Discovered by Willem Jacob Luyten (1899-1994), both Luyten 726-8A 726-8B are red dwarfs and too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

  • Distance: 8.73 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M5.5 de & M6 Ve
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Sirius binary star system
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Sirius A and B, a binary system 8.6 light-years away from Earth. NASA/ESA/STScI

Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the night sky. It has a companion called Sirius B, which is a white dwarf. The heliacal rising of this star (that is, it's rise just before sunset) was used by the ancient Egyptians as a way to know when the Nile would start flooding each year.

You can spot Sirius in the sky starting in late November; it's very bright and lies not far from Orion, the Hunter. 

  • Distance: 8.6 light-years
  • Spectral Type: A1Vm
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08
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Ross 154
Could Ross 154 look like this up close?. NASA

Ross 154 appears to be a flare star, which means that it can increase its brightness by a factor of 10 or more before reverting to its normal state, a process which takes only a few minutes. No good images of it exist. 

  • Distance: 9.693 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M3.5
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09
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ross 248
An artist's conception of a planet circling around a red dwarf star (in the distance) similar to Ross 248. STScI

Right now, this one is the ninth-closest star to our solar system. However, around the year 38,000 AD, this red dwarf will get so close to the Sun that it will take the place of Proxima Centauri as the closest star to us. 

  • Distance: 10.32 light-years
  • Spectral Type: M5.5V
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epsilon eridani
Epsilon Eridan (in yellow) has at least one exoplanet. This nearby star is under intense scrutiny by astronomers. NASA

Epsilon Eridani is among the closest stars known to have a planet, Epsilon Eridani b. It is the third closest star that is viewable without a telescope, in the constellation Eridanus. The discovery of an exoplanet here piqued the curiosity of astronomers, who are working to understand what kind of world it is. The star it orbits is a young, highly magnetic star, making this system doubly fascinating to astronomers.

  • Distance: 10.5 light-years
  • Spectral Type: K2V
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