“It was kind of unbelievable that it was real data,” said Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian. “We were scratching our heads. For any idea that came up there was always something that would argue against it.”
She was talking to the New Scientist about KIC 8462852, a distant star with a very unusual flickering habit. Something was making the star dim drastically every few years, and she wasn’t sure what.
Boyajian wrote up a paper on possible explanations for the star’s bizarre behavior, which was published recently in the Monthly Notes of the Royals Astronomical Society. But she also sent her data to fellow astronomer Jason Wright, a Penn State University researcher who helped developed a protocol for seeking signs of unearthly civilization, wondering what he would make of it.
To Wright, it looked like the kind of star he and his colleagues had been waiting for. If none of the ordinary reasons for the star’s flux quite seemed to fit, perhaps an extraordinary one was in order.
Or, to be more specific, something built by aliens — a “swarm of megastructures,” as he told the Atlantic, likely outfitted with solar panels to collect energy from the star.
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright said. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
To be sure, both Boyajian and Wright believe the possibility of alien megastructures around KIC 8462852 is very, very remote. It’s worthy of hypothesis, Wright told Slate, “but we should also approach it skeptically.”
Yet compared to the vast majority of supposed sightings of signs of extraterrestrial life, this one has some credibility. Here’s why.
KIC 8462852 was discovered through Planet Hunters, a citizen science program launched at Yale University in 2010. Using data from the Kepler Space Telescope, volunteers sift through records of brightness levels from roughly 150,000 stars beyond our solar system.
Ordinarily, planet hunters are looking for the telltale drops in brightness that happen when a planet crosses in front of its sun. That’s how we identify planets now — brief interruptions in the progress of light as it makes its way toward Earth. Not a presence, but an absence. Already the project has uncovered a few confirmed planets and at least several dozen more planet candidates.
But one finding from the program was unlike anything else scientists had ever seen. Volunteers marked it out as unusual in 2011, right after the program started: a star whose light curves seemed to dip tremendously at irregular intervals. At one point, about 800 days into the survey, the star’s brightness dropped by 15 percent. Later, around day 1,500, it dropped by a shocking 22 percent. Whatever was causing the dips, it could not have been a planet — even a Jupiter-sized planet, the biggest in our solar system, would only dim this star by 1 percent as it transited across, Slate reported. (The Kepler telescope was badly damaged in 2013, so the researchers don’t have data from more recent dips, if there were any).
Another natural force must be at work here.
In their paper, Boyajian and her colleagues went to great lengths to review and refute the more obvious explanations for the odd display. It wasn’t a mistake, caused by a problem the telescope or their data processors — they checked their data with the Kepler mission team, and found no problems for nearby stars when they checked their light curves against neighboring sources.