Astronomers say Flickering of Distant Star Could be the Result of an Unearthly Civilization
It has been described as the most mysterious star in our galaxy. The star, labelled as KIC 8462852, sits between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, invisible to the naked eye, but visible through the Kepler Space Telescope. Every few years, the star dims drastically and irregularly and so far, no scientific explanation has been able to definitively account for its strange behaviour. While admitting that the likelihood is very remote, a number of scientists are saying that one explanation that could account for the irregular dimming, is the possibility of an alien megastructure using solar panels to collect energy from the star.
Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian has been studying the star’s behaviour for some time and recently published a paper with possible explanations in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, including instrument defects, shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup, or an impact of planetary scale.
“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,” reports Boyajian and colleagues in the paper.
However, she adds that out of all the possibilities considered, the one that is the most possible is the break-up of an exocomet.
One explanation for the star’s dimming is the break-up of exocomets around the star (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center / flickr)
According to this hypothesis, a family of exocomets may have strayed too close to the star and got broken up by its gravity, producing large amounts of dust and gas. New Scientist reports that if the comets are on an eccentric orbit around the star, passing in front of it around every 700 days, getting broken up and spread out a they go, that could explain the strange dips in light. However, Boyajian admits that much more research is needed to test out this hypothesis, and some are not so convinced.
“That would be an extraordinary coincidence, if that happened so recently, only a few millennia before humans developed the tech to loft a telescope into space,” writes Ross Anderson in The Atlantic. “That’s a narrow band of time, cosmically speaking.”
Alternative explanation – alien megastructure
Washington Post reports that when Boyajian’s data was sent to fellow astronomer Jason Wright, a member of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds and the Penn State Astrobiology Research Centre, the star and its unusual behaviour began to attract more attention.
“When I spoke to Boyajian on the phone, she explained that her recent paper only reviews ‘natural’ scenarios,” Wright told The Atlantic. “But, she said, there were ‘other scenarios’ she was considering.”
Both Wright and Boyajian have been exploring the possibility that an alien structure exists around the planet and is harnessing its energy, perhaps through solar power. While they admit the possibility is very remote, they believe the theory is worth exploring, albeit skeptically.
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright said to 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.”
Wright is now preparing a paper that explores this alternative explanation in more detail.
Wright suggests that an alien megastructure or series of megastructures may be harnessing energy from the star. (Wikipedia)
Investigating the alien hypothesis
While theories of extraterrestrial presence in our galaxy are rarely given much merit, Wright and Boyajian’s hypothesis is being given serious attention. They are now working with Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to write up a proposal for directing an enormous radio dish at the star to search for frequencies associated with technological activity.
“If they see a sizable amount of radio waves, they’ll follow up with the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which may be able to say whether the radio waves were emitted by a technological source, like those that waft out into the universe from Earth’s network of radio stations,” reports The Atlantic.
The first observations are planned for January 2016.
Featured image: Two planets in space, glowing mysterious nebula in universe. Ig0rzh | Dreamstime.com