Astronomers have become fascinated with a mysterious mass of objects whirling around a distant star. The star, called KIC 8462852, is showing some unusual dimming behavior with one possible explanation – alien technology.
Now before you go running for the hills screaming about an alien invasion and wondering who they’ll decide to take back to their planet, let’s back up a little bit and discuss this star and why it’s such a big deal.
KIC 8462852 was first spotted by the Kepler Telescope back in 2009 and is nestled between constellations Cygnus and Lyra in the Northern hemisphere’s sky. The purpose of the Kepler telescope is to scan outer space for possible clues of other worlds and by looking for small dips in stars’ brightness. These dips could indicate that they’re being orbited by one or more planets – the way the planets in our solar system orbit the sun.
Astronomers noticed that the star had two small dips in 2009, followed by a long one lasting almost a week in 2011, and a series of multiple ones notably dimming the star’s light in 2013. This was enough for scientists to flag the star as unusual.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” said Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
To help monitor the 150,000 stars under the Kepler Telescope’s watchful eye, the astronomers founded Planet Hunters, a coalition of citizen scientists around the world to collect data and help monitor the stars. It just so happens that KIC 8462852’s dips in brightness stand out more than any other star being monitored.
So, what exactly is causing these dips in brightness? Well, the strongest theory is that a family of exocomets were pulled in by the star and became obliterated by the star’s massive gravitational pull. The remaining debris would be orbiting the star causing the dips in brightness.
Researchers from UC Berkeley’s SETI Institute have a very different and much more exciting idea – yep, aliens. SETI researchers believe the star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps some sort of technology designed to catch energy from the star.
Boyajian admits that aliens is always the last hypothesis to consider, and that the mass orbiting the star is linked to aliens is a long shot, but worth investigating. Boyajian is working with SETI and Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, and the three of them want to point NRAO’s Green Bank Telescope to search for radio waves. The plan is for the first observation to take place in January and depending on what they find, who knows what kind of BIG news we could expect in 2016.