Strange dips in light from a star some 1,480 light years from Earth captured by NASA’s Kepler telescope have astronomers searching for an explanation.
The Kepler telescope has been observing several stars for many years, but one star in particular stands out for its unusual light patterns. In its quest to find other habitable planets, Kepler has been keeping an eye on more than 150,000 stars during its journey through the galaxy. In particular, Kepler was looking for dips in light emitted by those stars that could be an indication of planets passing in front of them.
What Kepler found around star KIC 8462852 was unlike any of the other stars that the telescope observed.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Dr. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral astronomy fellow at Yale, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
The pattern of light that reaches us from KIC 8462852 is highly irregular. Every few years, it dims inexplicably, for reasons Dr. Boyajian and her astronomy team have not been able to attribute to orbiting planets. What is even more striking is that KIC 8462852 is a mature star. In a young star, the amount of volatility in its light patterns could be easily attributed to extra dust clouds, which would then give off a high amount of infrared light.
Dr. Boyajian and her co-authors explained in a recent paper that KIC 8462852 also could not be influenced by the light coming from neighboring stars, as the distance between them is too great. The researchers are concluding that the source of KIC 8462852’s flickering comes from a giant mass of particles that have remained floating around the star, in apparent defiance of how orbiting bodies are expected to behave.
“It was kind of unbelievable that it was real data,” Dr. Boyajian told New Scientist. “We were scratching our heads. For any idea that came up there was always something that would argue against it.”
Because the scientists have also ruled out the possibility that the orbiting objects could be comets or pieces from an asteroid impact, other astronomers are raising the question of alien engineering.
“When [Dr. Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Dr. Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy at Pennsylvania State University, told The Atlantic. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
For Dr. Wright, the collection of particles around the star demonstrates the possibility of an ‘alien megastructure,’ or a collection of devices that an alien civilization could possibly have built to harness solar energy.
In order to find out if aliens are, in fact, responsible for these bizarre objects near the star, Dr. Boyajian and her fellow researchers are teaming up with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. They will be pointing radio dishes at the star to search for those radio waves that technological devices, at least the ones made by humans, tend to emit.
While Dr. Wright admits that extraterrestrial life could be a possibility, he told Slate, “[there is] a need to hypothesize, but we should also approach it skeptically.”