Could the star known as KIC 8462852 be home to an alien civilization?
Sure, this sounds bizarre and more science fiction than science, but this new star and its strange findings have gotten people — including scientists — talking about aliens.
The best part is that this star and its mysterious findings was really discovered by people just like you. Using Planet Hunters, a citizen science project where people can find planets orbiting other stars — exoplanets — people seemed to notice something odd about KIC 8462852, a star that’s about 1,500 light-years from Earth.
READ MORE: Habitable planets: Is E.T. out there?
According to a study published last month people looking at data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope, noticed the star’s light curve as “bizarre” and “interesting.”
The light curve they’re talking about is used to help astronomers discover new exoplanets. One of the few ways astronomers detect far off worlds is by measuring a light curve — a dimming — as an object passes in front of the parent star.
Now, typically, the dimming is by a per cent or so. But KIC 8462852 was dimmed near 20 per cent. That is incredibly significant.
While you might put it off to something like a giant planet, that’s not the case. Even a Jupiter-sized planet — which many of the thousands of exoplanets discovered so far have been — only dim the light by about a per cent. Anything that big would need to be a star, but if it were, we’d see it.
As well, if it were something orbiting the star, it would dip at regularly timed intervals. But that wasn’t the case.
After KIC 8462852 was marked as an interesting object, scientists began to analyze the data themselves (as is the process) and were somewhat stumped.
WATCH: 16×9 The Search for Life
They tried to account for instrumental effects, dust clumps from forming planets, debris from a giant impact in a planetary system, but ruled them out. No defects were found in the instrumentation; the star is not a new one, so there wouldn’t be dust clumps; it would be rare to have witnessed a giant impact and it wouldn’t account for periodicity irregularities in the data.
So here’s how the alien part comes into it.
In the 1960s, physicist Freeman Dyson theorized that advanced civilizations will one day have a need for massive quantities of energy, with the sun as the optimal source. He proposed building a structure — like solar panels — around the sun that would gather all its energy output, which came to be known as the Dyson sphere. Dyson speculated that any advanced civilization would likely need to build structure like this.
So if one of these existed around a star, it could possibly account for strange, irregularly timed dips in a star’s brightness, say, around KIC 8462852.
But that’s not to say it is aliens. There may be something that we don’t know yet understand that could account for this. And to be clear, the scientists haven’t suggested aliens as the source in their study.
In their conclusion, the authors of the study said, “We presented an extensive set of scenarios to explain the occurrence of the dips, most of which are unsuccessful in explaining the observations in their entirety.”
However, in a story in The Atlantic, Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University said that while extraterrestrials should always be the last thing to consider, but “something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
In an email to Global News, Wright said that he’s intrigued by the finding. “I’m excited about the mystery of Tabby’s star. I want to know what it is and why it’s unique!”
So is it aliens?
The authors of the study could not definitively conclude what the source of the irregularities were. However, they concluded that the likely explanation lies with a break-up of an exocomet, possibly due to a the perturbations of a nearby star. The breakup could have created a “barrage” of comets which in turn thrust many objects around the star, creating the bizarre light dip. But even that explanation wasn’t air tight.
Still, there could be other reasons which is why more follow-up is needed.
“It could be a very young star. Young stars can have warped disks and giant proto-planets with enormous ring systems that can cause dips something like these,” Wright said. “This star appears to be mature, ruling those scenarios out, but perhaps we’ve missed something.”
The object will be studied further, of course. There are already plans to observe the region for any signals from space. Wright said that he plans on using spectroscopy — the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation in order to determine “what the material blocking the starlight looks like.”
“I don’t know the odds of finding an alien civilization,” said Wright. “I do know that we have to look.”