By: Eileen Marable
The space and science community was buzzing last week about of odd behavior of a star called KIC 8462852. More accurately, the news was about the odd behavior from something near or in transit around the star causing it to dim in irregular patterns and brightness. The buzz was about the theory whether this could be a megastructure or mass of structures created by aliens.
Science Channel will air a special news update about the theories being aired about this strange star: Alien Megastructures tonight at 9/8c. Before you tune-in or set your DVR, here's a little bit about why this odd star has scientists stumped and alien hunters guessing.
While going about its mission to find exoplanets Kepler Space Telescope found this star in 2009. Kepler does its job by observing far flung stars and tracking any dimming in their brightness, which could signify the presence of an exoplanet. When the dimness happens over a recognizable period and speed, it often signals there is an exoplanet and can even help astronomers estimate the size. In the case of KIC 8462852, the star had dips that followed no precise pattern and vary in intensity.
Kepler could very well be picking up some natural phenomenon such as dust rings or a debris field. After all, Kepler can pick up things other than exoplanets, like flares, said dust or debris, or perhaps even something created specifically to move around the star. Yes, created.
Of course we expect some backlash at this point, and at least one of the meme with the wacky looking dude who has his hair standing up with the text “Aliens” on it. The comments claiming this is pseudo-science have come along with most posts and articles we've seen circulated on the topic. Some people do not believe there is alien life, and do not like mainstream science and cultural media outlets reporting on it.
Here’s why some of us are talking about it.
The source of this story and the follow up pieces are not the result of astronomers just grabbing at straws. The data on this star goes back to 2009 and has been carefully documented; a paper reporting on the data and all plausible theories was just submitted by a Yale post-doctorate researcher to the September 2015 edition of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The paper also includes the names and interpretation of several citizen scientists from The Planet Hunters, an expert group who regularly studies certain parts of the galaxy to help scientists wade through the massive amount of data the telescopes send back. The combined efforts of the lead at Yale, Tabetha Boyajian, and the Planet Hunters confirmed at least two basic things: the irregular data is NOT coming from flawed data or instrumental error and the behavior was notable, with dips “in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”
Boyajian and the Planet Hunters offer up several theories, most of which raise additional questions given that none of them are an exact fit with the behavior being observed.
As Dr. Ian O’Neill notes in his DNews report on the story, Boyajian’s paper focuses only on “…natural and known possible causes of the mystery transit events around KIC 8462852. A second paper is currently being drafted to investigate a completely different transit scenario that focuses around the possibility of a mega-engineering project created by an advanced alien civilization.”
This does NOT mean anyone is immediately suggesting it IS an alien megastructure. What this second paper and some scientists believe is that every possible theory must be explored. Even if it the most remote chance it is something created by an advanced civilization, in the spirit of scientific exploration it must be explored and proven or dis-proven. So we’ll wait for the paper and see.
So what happens next? Well, the scientists at the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute are joining in the search for an explanation in a significant way. They’ve turned their Allen Telescope Array – a field of 42 smaller and highly targeted satellite dishes – off its normal schedule and have focused it on KIC 8462852. They will work day and night looking for transmissions that fall into a specific range of wavelengths.
According to Universe Today, the team is gathering results they hope to publish soon in a scientific journal.
The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) has also joined in, issuing an alert to its members on October 20th to focus on KIC 8462852, with specific parameters to help target their observations. This continues to be a working investigation to find the cause of the erratic dips.
At Science Channel we believe in “questioning everything,” and we’re excited by the depth of research going into confirming a theory, regardless the side of the debate. We’ll be presenting the latest news about the story tonight in a special news report: Alien Megastructures at 9/8c. We hope you’ll join us in exploring the story of this strange signal and the science going into solving this mystery.
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