50 closest star systems to earth and what we might find there
Since operations began on Oct. 1, 1958, NASA has been exploring our solar system and the stars beyond. The sun is just one out of more than 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy—and these far-flung stellar bodies offer scientists some of the best clues to finding new planets.
Astronomers use geometry to determine the distance of stars from Earth. As the Earth orbits the sun, the position of certain stars appears to change. That’s why some constellations only appear in the night sky during certain seasons. By measuring the apparent position of a star at one point of the year and comparing it to its position at another point six months later, when the Earth is on the opposite side of the sun, astronomers can figure out how far away the star is. Astronomers call this technique stellar parallax. Distance is measured in light-years, with one light-year being about 6 trillion miles.
Some stars are too far away for astronomers to calculate their distance with stellar parallax. In this case, astronomers estimate distance by comparing the unknown star’s brightness measurements and color observations with those of known stars.
Using NASA and other scientific sources, Stacker compiled a list of the 50 star systems closest to our sun, ranked by distance in light-years. Explore these systems to learn where to find them in the sky, what they can reveal about the universe, and which ones might provide the right conditions for habitable planets.
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#50. Gliese 412
- Distance from the sun: 15.98 light-years
- Star(s): Gliese 412 A, Gliese 412 B
- Discovered in: c. 1850
Gliese 412 is a binary star system in the constellation Ursa Major, otherwise known as the great bear or the Big Dipper. As part of a binary star system, Gliese 412’s two stars, aptly named Gliese 412 A and Gliese 412 B, orbit a common center of mass. Gliese 412 A and B are type M stars, or red dwarfs, meaning they’re small and cool relative to other stars. Red dwarfs appear to be a common star type in the Milky Way. These stars are named for their position in the “Gliese Catalog of Nearby Stars” originally developed by astronomer Wilhelm Gliese.
[Pictured: Ursa Major in the night sky.]
#49. DEN 0255-4700
- Distance from the sun: 15.89 light-years
- Star(s): DEN 0255-4700 (brown dwarf)
- Discovered in: 1999
DEN 0255-4700, like the sun, is the lone star in its system. As a brown dwarf, DEN 0255-4700 is one of the coolest types of stars. Brown dwarfs are also small, lacking the mass required to burn hydrogen and produce starlight, which is why astronomers debate whether brown dwarfs technically qualify as stars. This object is part of one of the longest constellations, Eridanus, the river. The dwarf is named for the survey that helped astronomers discover it, NASA’s deep near-infrared survey of the southern sky, DENIS.
[Pictured: NASA artist's concept of a brown dwarf star(not DEN 0255-4700).]
#48. Groombridge 1618
- Distance from the sun: 15.88 light-years
- Star(s): Groombridge 1618
- Discovered in: 1838
As a flare star, Groombridge 1618 varies in brightness thanks to flares erupting from its surface. For this reason, flare stars are sometimes called variable stars. It is also a dwarf star of the K variety, which astronomers think might support oxygen and methane containing atmospheres, a potential signature of life, in orbiting planets. At the moment, astronomers don’t know of any planets near the star. Groombridge 1618 and other K stars are brighter than red dwarfs, but dimmer than the sun, taking on an orange-yellow hue.
[Pictured: Illustration of flaring red dwarf star.]
#47. GJ 1002
- Distance from the sun: 15.82 light-years
- Star(s): GJ 1002
- Discovered in: 2012
GJ 1002 is another red dwarf. Although scientists have not identified any planets in this system, they’re monitoring red dwarf stars for any closely-orbiting planets that could harbor life. Stars that contain “GJ” as part of their name are also in the “Gliese Catalog of Nearby Stars.” The G stands for Gliese, and the J represents the other astronomer who prepared the catalog, Hartmut Jahreiss.
[Pictured: Artist's concept shows the Neptune-sized extrasolar planet (22 ME) circling the star Gliese 436.]
#46. LHS 288
- Distance from the sun: 15.77 light-years
- Star(s): LHS 288
- Discovered in: 1986
This star is a red dwarf in the Carina constellation. Resembling a ship’s keel, the constellation is visible mostly from the southern hemisphere. LHS 288 might be accompanied by a planet, but astronomers have yet to verify this. LHS 288 appears in the “Luyten Half Second” catalog of stars, named for Dutch-American astronomer Willem Jacob Luyten.
[Pictured: The Carina nebula.]
#45. Gliese 876
- Distance from the sun: 15.25 light-years
- Star(s): Gliese 876
- Discovered in: Data not available
Red dwarf Gliese 876 is accompanied by four planets, Gliese 876 b, c, d, and e. Gliese 876 b and c orbit in the star’s habitable zone, the zone in which a planet might be warm enough to have liquid water. It appears in the constellation Aquarius, the water bearer, near other stars in water-related constellations, like Cetus.
[Pictured: Artist's concept of a gas giant planet orbiting the cool, red dwarf star Gliese 876, located in the constellation Aquarius.]
#44. G 208-44 / G 208-45
- Distance from the sun: 15.21 light-years
- Star(s): G 208-44 A, G 208-44 B, G 208-45
- Discovered in: 1967
This three-star system of red dwarf flare stars isn’t particularly unique. Multi-star systems and single stars are equally common, according to astronomers.
[Pictured: Artist's impression of a triple-star system close to a giant planet orbiting in the system.]
#43. LP 145-141
- Distance from the sun: 15.12 light-years
- Star(s): LP 145-141 (white dwarf)
- Discovered in: 1917
Part of the Musca, or fly, constellation, LP 145-141 is a bright spot in the southern night sky. White dwarf stars are extremely old and dense—the only thing denser than a white dwarf is a neutron star. Small stars, like the sun, become white dwarfs toward the end of their lives after they’ve burned up all their hydrogen.
[Pictured: 3-D view of an interstellar molecular cloud in Musca constellation.]
#42. WISE J0521+1025
- Distance from the sun: 16.30 light-years
- Star(s): WISE J0521+1025 (brown dwarf)
- Discovered in: 2012
Astronomers discovered WISE J0521-1025 in 2012 as part of an effort to locate more brown dwarfs near the sun. WISE J0521-1025 was located by analyzing 2010 data from NASA’s wide-field infrared survey explorer (WISE) and older surveys.
[Pictured: Artist's concept of Brown Dwarf HD 29587 B.]
#41. LHS 292
- Distance from the sun: 14.89 light-years
- Star(s): LHS 292
- Discovered in: Data not available
LHS 292 is located in the dim, kite-shaped constellation, Sextans. Another red dwarf and variable star, LHS 292 is similar to its stellar neighbors. This star also gets its name from the “Luyten Half Second” catalog, developed by the astronomer, Luyten.
[Pictured: Sextans constellation.]2018 All rights reserved.