In 1915, the Scottish astronomer Robert Innes, Director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa, discovered a star that had the same proper motion as Alpha Centauri. He suggested that it be named Proxima Centauri (actually Proxima Centaurus). In 1917, at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch astronomer Joan Voûte measured the star's trigonometric parallax at 0.755″±0.028″ and determined that Proxima Centauri was approximately the same distance from the Sun as Alpha Centauri. It was also found to be the lowest-luminosity star known at the time. An equally accurate parallax determination of Proxima Centauri was made by American astronomer Harold L. Alden in 1928, who confirmed Innes's view that it is closer, with a parallax of 0.783″±0.005″.
Stars closest to the Sun
, including Proxima Centauri
In 1951, American astronomer Harlow Shapley announced that Proxima Centauri is a flare star. Examination of past photographic records showed that the star displayed a measurable increase in magnitude on about 8% of the images, making it the most active flare star then known.
The proximity of the star allows for detailed observation of its flare activity. In 1980, the Einstein Observatory produced a detailed X-ray energy curve of a stellar flare on Proxima Centauri. Further observations of flare activity were made with the EXOSAT and ROSAT satellites, and the X-ray emissions of smaller, solar-like flares were observed by the Japanese ASCA satellite in 1995. Proxima Centauri has since been the subject of study by most X-ray observatories, including XMM-Newton and Chandra.
In 2016, the International Astronomical Union organized a Working Group on Star Names (WGSN) to catalogue and standardize proper names for stars. The WGSN approved the name Proxima Centauri for this star on August 21, 2016 and it is now so included in the List of IAU approved Star Names.
Because of Proxima Centauri's southern declination, it can only be viewed south of latitude 27° N.[nb 3] Red dwarfs such as Proxima Centauri are too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Even from Alpha Centauri A or B, Proxima would only be seen as a fifth magnitude star. It has an apparent visual magnitude of 11, so a telescope with an aperture of at least 8 cm (3.1 in) is needed to observe it, even under ideal viewing conditions—under clear, dark skies with Proxima Centauri well above the horizon.
In 2018, a superflare was observed from Proxima Centauri, the strongest flare ever seen. The optical brightness increased by a factor of 68 to approximately magnitude 6.8. It is estimated that similar flares occur around five times every year but are of such short duration, just a few minutes, that they have never been observed before.