Astronomy

Scientists to study strange star for signs of intelligent life

Scientists unable to explain odd light patterns emitted by Tabby's Star, massive megastructure harboring alien life considered by scientists

 

Starting on Wednesday night, scientists on the hunt for extraterrestrial life will begin studying a strange star that has generated plenty of buzz because of its unique behavior.

The distant sun is known as Tabby’s star, and what’s atypical about it is that its brightness does not remain constant. Data show that the star dimmed slightly from 2009 to 2012, and then its brightness dropped by two percent over a period of six months. Now, the Breakthrough Listen project at the University of California, Berkeley, has announced that they will peer at the star using a radio telescope to see if they can detect intelligent life.

“The Breakthrough Listen program has the most powerful SETI equipment on the planet, and access to the largest telescopes on the planet,” Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen, said in a statement. “We can look at it with greater sensitivity and for a wider range of signal types than any other experiment in the world."

Related: Why is this star dimming? Astronomers still don't know

One farfetched theory about the star is that aliens are somehow responsible for the star’s dimming, perhaps by having built a structure that passes in front of it, although Dan Werthimer, the chief scientist at Berkeley SETI, said he thinks that’s incredibly improbable.

“I don’t think it’s very likely – a one in a billion chance or something like that – but nevertheless, we’re going to check it out,” Werthimer said in the statement.

The Berkeley team is not the first to look for signs of life around this star, which is formally known as KIC 8462852, and no one has found anything yet. They’re going to spend a total of 24 hours over three nights gazing at the star using a large, movable radio telescope in West Virginia, but even in that amount of time they predict that they’ll gather oodles of data that will take a while to analyze.

The star has been a subject of much fascination since it was first described in 2015 by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University.

Earlier in October, Columbia University astronomer David Kipping told FoxNews.com that he thinks the most likely explanation for what’s happening with the star is a natural one— it’s just a “gap in our present knowledge” at this point.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger