Scientists looking for planets around the star nearest to the solar system will soon get a helping hand from Mother Nature.
Our neighbor star, Proxima Centauri, will line up very closely with a background star in October 2014 and then again with another star in February 2016, relative to Earth's line of sight.
The geometry will enable astronomers to take advantage of a fanciful but practical ramification of Einstein's general relatively theory, which explains how gravity curves space (and time - but that's another story.)
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Sometimes when gravity bends light waves, objects that previously weren't visible can be seen. When Proxima Centauri aligns with background stars, astronomers want to measure the distorted views of the background stars to get a more precise calculation of our neighbor's mass. The idea is that if Proxima Centauri has any planets in orbit, they may cause a secondary shift in the background stars' positions during the alignments.
Because the star is so close to Earth, the patch of sky under its gravitational influence is relatively large, which makes the hunt for orbital plants possible, Kailash Sahu, an astronomer with the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, said at the opening day of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Indianapolis on Monday.