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Proxima Centauri Exoplanet Search: Star Alignment May Open Up Search For Our Nearest Alien Neighbours

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A rare alignment of stars will give scientists the chance to find the closest alien world to our Solar System.

Astronomers around the world are currently scouring the skies with a variety of telescopes in an effort to locate planets beyond our own Sun.

Known as 'exoplanets', more than 860 of these strange worlds are suspected to have been found so far, including 723 confirmed planets and more than 100 that might have the potential to support life.

Many of these have been found by the Kepler space telescope, which recently experienced a critical failure but is now said to be "safe and stable" albeit not collecting data.

Finding these planets is very difficult, since they cannot be seen directly but only through the subtle shifts in light sent from distant stars.

The peculiarities of this approach mean that even searching for planets around our nearest star - Proxima Centauri, a cooler and smaller star than our sun about 4.24 light years away - is still extremely difficult.

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But when that star passes in front of background stars in October 2014 and February 2016, scientists may finally have the chance they need.

Using an effect known as gravitational lensing, in which the gravity of Proxima will bend the background light in measurable ways, to see if our nearest neighbouring sun may have planets of its own.

Instruments from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Very Large Telescope in Chile might be able to pick up signs of a planetary signature in the light curve, researchers at the Space Science Telescope Institute told Space.com.

The alignment will make it possible, potentially, to find planets orbiting Proxima Centauri up to four times the distance of Earth to the Sun. And that opens up the chance that rocky, Earth-like worlds could be among their number.

Already a very hot rocky world has been found around Alpha Centauri B, another star in the system.

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