The discovery of an inexplicable light pattern around Tabby’s Star
It lies 1,481 light years away from Earth, between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, sitting above the Milky Way in the Northern hemisphere. The Kepler Space Telescope has trained its eye on the star (dubbed KIC 8462852, TYC 3162-665-1, or Tabby’s Star) since 2009 but only since hordes of amateur scientists (a group called Planet Hunters) were recruited to scour through the star’s data was the anomaly spotted – an inexplicable anomaly that led many to question whether an alien megastructure was orbiting the sat. Of the discovery, Yale postdoc Tabetha Boyajian told Atlantic Monthly,
“We’d 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.”
Bradley Schaefer, a physics and astronomy professor at Louisiana State University, examined data from a Harvard University archive of digitally scanned photographic plates of the sky dating back more than a century. He averaged the data and noticed that the star system also dimmed between 1890 and 1989. He agreed that the star’s unusual behavior is impossible to explain.
“Millions of these stars have been monitored for this sort of thing, and they don’t fade. This star’s dimming is unique – and inexplicable.”
The anomaly was detected in 2011 when scientists using Kepler to look for potentially habitable planets, noticed the star was emitting a light pattern stranger than any other known star. The pattern suggested something unusual was orbiting the star. That “something” could not be dust – the star is far too old (it lies nowhere near a place that stars form) and besides, any dust orbiting that closely would have been sucked by gravity into the star long ago. Nor could its unusual light pattern be planets because the “appearance” of the matter circling the star was not cyclical. Whatever was moving in front of the star had no pattern, a lot of mass, and appears around the star at seemingly random (or purposefully planned) times. Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright told reporters:
“That was when I got interested in in it because the light curve is so bizarre. It gets dimmer for days at a time. We haven’t seen anything quite like this.”
Scientists propose theories in an attempt to explain KC 8462852’s unusual light pattern
In a new research paper, Scientist have proposed several theories; defective instruments, asteroid debris, remnants from a planetary explosion, or something landing on the star, but admit that none truly explain what they are seeing orbiting around the strange star. Yale postdoctoral astronomy fellow Tabetha Boyajian also examined over 100-years worth of data on the star’s weird behavior and told CNN:
“The century-long dimming trend requires an estimated 648,000 giant comets… all orchestrated to pass in front of the star within the last century.”
Last week, scientists said that the paper only reviewed “natural” scenarios but now say they are considering “other scenarios” – could Kepler have discovered evidence of a distant extraterrestrial civilization?
Could an alien megastructure from an extraterrestrial civilization be orbiting Tabby’s Star?
SETI researchers have long suggested that we may be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations by looking for enormous “technological artifacts” orbiting other stars. Some researchers agrue that this star’s unusual light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star. As if reading the future through a crystal ball, over a decade ago, astronomer Luke Arnold proposed the exact situation scientists are seeing today:
“If alien civilizations do build giant structures, planet-sized structures in space, sometimes they will pass in front of their star and it will look different from when a planet transits the star. If Kepler surveyed 100,000 stars and one of those is surrounded by alien megastructures, Kepler will notice them. They won’t look like a planet. They will look very different.”
Now other scientists are considering Arnold’s proposal. On researcher noted:
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked. Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
What’s next for Tabby’s Star?
There is estimated to be in our galaxy alone a trillion planets. And we can see 100 billion galaxies. It’s believed that one in 10 stars may have a habitable world capable of supporting life. Although scientist haven’t picked up any radio signals from the star system yet, that doesn’t rule out intelligent life in KIC 8462852.
Scientists next plan to submit a proposal requesting a massive radio dish be pointed at the star. If they detect a sizeable amount of radio waves, they will follow up with the New Mexico’s VLA (Very Large Array) to determine if the radio waves are emitted by a technological source. The first tests will likely take place in January 2016.