Updated 01:05 PM EDT, Tue, Sep 22, 2020

Two Rare Stellar Alignments Will Give Planet Hunters A Chance At Studying Proxima Centauri

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Two rare stellar alignments over the next few years will give planet hunters a rare chance at exploring Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun. NASA plans to pull out the big guns, and utilize the Hubble Space Telescope in an effort to locate Earth-sized planets around the relatively close red dwarf star.

Proxima Centauri will pass in front of two stars on October 2014 and February 2016, creating a microlensing gravitational effect that researchers can use to learn more about the star and its surrounding objects.

"This is an opportunity to determine the mass of Proxima, and also detect planets up to 4 AU (astronomical units) around Proxima Centauri," Kailash Sahu, an astronomer with the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore, Md., told said at the a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Indianapolis.

"Proxima Centauri's trajectory offers a most interesting opportunity because of its extremely close passage to the two stars."

Microlensing occurs when a star passes in front of another star. The background star then appears slightly distorted due to the effects of gravity. By comparing the background star's data on its own, to how it appears with Proxima Centauri in front of it, researchers can deduce specific details about Proxima Centauri, such as its mass, temperature, age, diameter, and its brightness.

Scientists are excited about studying Proxima Centauri not only because it is so close to Earth, but also because it is a red dwarf star. Red dwarf stars are the smallest, most numerous stars in our galaxy, and because of their size, are more likely to parent a smaller, Earth-sized planets. Larger stars are often surrounded with gas giants, some many times the size of our own solar system's Jupiter.

NASA states that despite the relatively close distance to our planet, only incredibly precise instruments will be able to make the necessary measurements. Along with NASA's Hubble Telescope, the European Space Agency's Gaia space telescope and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope on Mt. Cerro Paranal in Chile are expected to participate in the study.

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