The View from Alpha Centauri

Suppose we found ourselves on a star orbiting somewhere around Alpha Centauri A or B. What would we see in the night sky? Amazingly, Proxima Centauri would shine at only magnitude 4.5. But at least its proper motion would be remarkable. The next closest star would be the Sun. It would appear as a magnitude +0.5 star not far in the sky from the Double Cluster in Perseus. In addition to the Sun, five other star systems are known to lie within 10 light-years of the Alpha Centauri system. The brightest of these, of course, would be Sirius. But Sirius lies almost a light-year farther from Alpha Centauri than it does from us, so it would be a little dimmer, a magnitude -1.2 jewel in the Alpha Centaurian sky. Most interesting of all would be the position of Sirius in that sky. It would shine about 2° west of Betelgeuse in an otherwise almost-unchanged Orion.

I was surely only seven or eight, however, when I stood out near the country road in front of my lifelong home in early spring and saw, poised at the top of a small oak tree just north of east, a brilliant and orange star. I knew from my books and a little star finder (planisphere) that this was Arcturus. For at least a few years, it became a tradition for me to greet Arcturus as it climbed from the point of this pinnacle. But the tree was dying, and one year, without warning, my father went out and cut it down, probably before its time. I didn't know his thinking in the matter so I couldn't then and can't now quite blame him. But decades later "the Arcturus Tree" stands there still in my memory each year as I greet the great glad star of spring.

Arcturus is a lot more than just the brightest star of the north celestial hemisphere, the brightest star of (Northern Hemisphere) spring, the second brightest star ever visible to most of the world's people. In one very important way, Arcturus is the most distinctive of all the 1st-magnitude stars. The strangest thing about Arcturus is where it originally may have come from. I'll save the surprise about this until the end of the chapter. Let's begin with another fascinating topic—the lore and legend associated with Arcturus.

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