By Michael Casey, ,
Published October 16, 2015
A distant star is getting a lot of attention from astronomers – possibly as a sign that alien life is out there.
The star KIC 8462852 was discovered through Planet Hunters, a citizen science program at Yale University. Taking data from the Kepler Space Telescope, volunteers go searching for signs of a drop in light due to orbiting exoplanets crossing in front of their parent stars.
KIC 8462852 is 1,481 light years away from Earth. A light year measures the astronomical distance that light travels in one year and is equivalent to 5.8 trillion miles.
Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, who wrote a paper on the star that appeared in the Monthly Notes of the Royals Astronomical Society, told the New Scientist that she was drawn to the star’s flickering behavior.
She then sent her data to Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, who has done research on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
He was impressed.
“That was when I got interested in in it because the light curve is so bizarre,” Wright told FoxNews.com. “It gets dimmer for days at a time. We haven’t seen anything quite like this.”
Wright said such behavior has been seen in young stars. Such flickering in young stars, he said, could be from something landing on the star, a disc of material passing in front of it as well as something like the “recent discovery of a giant planet with enormous rings and it very slowly, over the course of a month or two, passed in front of its star and the star kept flickering, blinking out as the rings went by.”
But KIC 8462852 is not young.
“This seems to be old. It doesn’t show any signs of youth. It is nowhere near a place that stars form,” Wright said.
“It’s moving too quickly to be a young star. It doesn’t look young,” he said. “So, that gets rid of all the natural, obvious things. Then, you start reaching for contrived ways to do this to an old star.”
In her paper, Boyajian, according to the Atlantic, ruled out a number of scenarios for the odd flickering, including instrument malfunction. She came up with only one scenario that made sense – a sea of comets pulled inwards by another passing star.
Wright said this is a “nice but contrived explanation” – and something that would have been incredibly hard for planet hunters to have noticed.
“We just happened to be looking when a giant swarm of enormous comets is passing by,” he said. “Maybe. Something weird is going. This may be the best explanation I’ve heard so far.”
Another possibility is that the flickering is a sign of alien life, a swarm of megastructures built by space creatures passing in front of the star.
Such a scenario was first proposed in 2005 by astronomer Luc Arnold.
“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,” Wright told FoxNews.com. “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.”
Wright said it was “notable” that KIC 8462852 has these “very strange signatures that presumably are consistent with giant noncircular structures going in front of it.”
But Wright added that the the flickering of KIC 8462852 is “unlikely to be aliens.”
“But you have got to look,” he said. “It’s got us intrigued and it’s worth it for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to take a look because that is what SETI does. SETI is a moon shot, a long shot …You have to try and this is one of the best places to look.”
With a clear explanation elusive, Boyajian is now teaming up to write a proposal with Wright and Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California Berkeley. They would like to direct a huge radio dish at the star to see if it emits radio waves of the “sort that could only be emitted by artificial technology.”
“If you see radio emissions of the sort that we’ll look for with this antennae coming from that star, then that is case closed,” Wright said, comparing such a discovery to something out of the movie “Contact”. “There is no natural way to generate those. That is why they do it. It’s a slam dunk case for alien intelligence.”