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Proxima Centauri
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Proxima Centauri

October 25, 2005
Chandra and XMM-Newton observations of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri have shown that its surface is in a state of turmoil. Flares, or explosive outbursts, occur almost continually. This behavior can be traced to Proxima Centauri's low mass, about a tenth that of the Sun. In the cores of low mass stars, nuclear fusion reactions that convert hydrogen to helium proceed very slowly, and create a turbulent, convective motion throughout their interiors. This motion stores up magnetic energy which is often released explosively in the star's upper atmosphere where it produces flares in X-rays and other forms of light.

The same process produces X-rays on the Sun, but the magnetic energy is released in a less explosive manner through heating loops of gas, with occasional flares. The difference is due to the size of the convection zone, which in a more massive star such as the Sun, is smaller and closer to its surface.

Red dwarfs are the most common type of star. They have masses between about 8% and 50% of the mass of the Sun. Though they are much dimmer than the Sun, they will shine for much longer - trillions of years in the case of Proxima Centauri, compared to the estimated 10 billion-year lifetime of the Sun.

X-rays from Proxima Centauri are consistent with a point-like source. The extended X-ray glow is an instrumental effect. The nature of the two dots above the image is unknown - they could be background sources.


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