Star's path in the sky will allow astronomers to hunt for planets

June 3, 2013 at 6:30 PM

BALTIMORE, June 3 (UPI) -- Astronomers say the Hubble telescope will have two opportunities in the next few years to hunt for Earth-sized planets around our sun's nearest neighbor star.

The opportunities will present themselves in October 2014 and February 2016 when Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our sun, passes in front of two other stars, a release from the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore said Monday.

"Proxima Centauri's trajectory offers a most interesting opportunity because of its extremely close passage to the two stars," institute astronomer Kailash Sahu said.

The close passage will provide a rare opportunity to study warping of space by Proxima's gravity from the apparent displacement of the two stars in sky photographs -- an effect called gravitational lensing -- and the amount of warping will be used to calculate a precise mass for Proxima Centauri and look for the gravitational footprint of any planets orbiting the star, astronomers said.

However, they added, the position shifts will be too small to be perceived by any but the most sensitive telescopes in space and on the ground, so in addition to Hubble the European Space Agency's Gaia space telescope and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope will make additional measurements.

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