If you’ve ever wondered if (or been convinced that) there’s life on distant planets, this news may intrigue you.
The Kepler Space Telescope is always hard at work, observing deep space since 2009, and providing huge amounts of data for scientists to sift through, analyze, and form theories about what’s going on out there. This is all pretty routine, except for one star, between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, that seems to be flickering in a strange way.
Normally, a star flickers, or has its light dimmed slightly, when there’s a planet orbiting the star—that’s easy to figure out. Usually, a planet orbiting a star will cause the star to dim for a period of a few hours to a few days, and in a regular pattern. But this particular star, named KIC 8462852, is dimming irregularly.
It dimmed for two short times in 2009, and then for a longer time in 2011 that lasted almost a week. Multiple periods of dimness occurred in 2013, which significantly reduced the star’s brightness. What’s going on here?
It isn’t that the Space Telescope is malfunctioning, either. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctorate student at Yale, said they’ve “never seen anything like this star. It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
The mass that’s supposedly orbiting the star is irregularly-shaped, and scientists had a few ideas as to what it could be. If KIC 8462852 were a young star, then the mass was likely to be a “protoplanetary disc,” or material that could eventually coalesce into a planet. But the star isn’t young, nor is there any presence of dust.
The less fun theory is that a family of exocomets passed too close to the star, and were destroyed by the strong gravitational pull. That left dust and debris to orbit around the star.
But the more fun theory is that the orbiting mass is a piece of alien technology. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s SETI Institute have developed a proposal to search for radio waves. If they find something, they’ll use a VLA (Very Large Array) to listen for supposed alien technology.
They’ll start observations in January, and are planning to observe again next fall. Or, if they find something amazing, they’ll follow up immediately after. The unidentified “mass” is expected to transit the star again in May 2017.
Is anyone else keeping their fingers crossed for aliens?