Proxima Centauri is Far, Far Away

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Today an archive Hubble Space Telescope image of Proxima Centauri was released. It’s a beautiful image that shows Proxima as a small red dwarf star about one-tenth the radius of our Sun. As it’s name suggests, Proxima is close by – a scant 4.243 light years away, nary a stone’s throw across the universe.

But “close” is a very relative term here. In fact, the only way we can begin to comprehend the ridiculous distance to the closest star is to scale it down to something we might be able to better comprehend.

Let’s say for the sake of argument I got past security and managed to place a volleyball-sized scale model of our Sun on the top of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, like so:

The Sun, shrunk down to the size of a regulation Volleyball (radius of about 10.5 cm) placed atop the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Image from Google Earth
The Sun, shrunk down to the size of a regulation Volleyball (radius of about 10.5 cm) placed atop the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Click to embiggen. Image from Google Earth

That shrinks our Sun down to a radius of about 10.5 centimeters. Proxima is 4.243 light years away, which on this scale equates to a distance of 6025 km. That means on this scale, Proxima could lie anywhere along this ring around our volleyball sun in DC:

A 6,025km-radius ring drawn around a volleyball-sized Sun atop the Capitol building in Washington, DC
A 6,025km-radius ring drawn around a volleyball-sized Sun atop the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Click to embiggen. Image from Google Earth.

Proxima’s parent star, Alpha Centauri, lies about 155km beyond on this scale, so let’s place both at their respective distances in France:

The Sun in Washington, DC, Proxima Centauri in the French countryside and Alpha Centauri in Paris.
The Sun in Washington, DC, Proxima Centauri in the French countryside and Alpha Centauri in Paris. Click to embiggen. Image from Google Earth

So there you have it. If the Sun were a volleyball atop the Capitol Building in Washington DC, our nearest stellar neighbor would be about 1.5 centimeters in radius – about the size of a large ball bearing – somewhere in the French countryside.

Space is freakishly, mindbogglingly big!

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