Scientists are exploring the possibility that a star’s odd light pattern could be the result of a structure constructed by an alien civilization.
NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope collected a wealth of data after its launch in 2009 through 2013 when technical issues forced the instrument to take on a more limited mission. Scientists are still analyzing Kepler’s data and making new discoveries. So far, nearly 4,700 planet candidates have been found in Kepler data, and more than 1,000 planets have been confirmed. There is so much data to sift through that the Kepler team established Planet Hunters, which crowdsources the laborious study utilizing citizen scientists.
Several citizen scientists noticed that a star, named KIC 8462852, has an unusual light pattern.
Kepler searches for planets using the transit method–Kepler’s sensors detect dips in brightness caused when an alien planet passes in front of its star from Kepler’s perspective.
Typically, when a planet transits in front of a star, the star’s light dims for a few hours or days. But in the case of KIC 8462852, whatever passed in front of it when Kepler was looking caused the star’s light to dim for up to 80 days at a time, and at irregular intervals.
The unusual signal suggests to the researchers that there is a mass of . . . something around the star. Several natural explanations for the star’s bizarre transit signal have been explored and dismissed. A potentially reasonable possibly suggested is a swarm of comets. But as Dr. Ian O’Neill of Discovery News explains, “Although exocomets have been detected around other stars in the past, this would be the first detection of a vast clump of comets big enough to significantly dim the light of a mature F-type star (around 50 percent larger than our sun).” He continues, “However, an observation of this kind would have to be an incredible stroke of luck; for us to have a NASA space telescope looking in the right place at the right time of this rare collection of comets to pass in front of one star of only 150,000 stars in Kepler’s field of view (over a very short time period of 4 years), is crazy lucky.”
So scientists are exploring other possibilities.
Some of the scientists looking into this strange star, including Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, are entertaining the possibility that an alien structure is to blame. Wright told The Atlantic that the unusual light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” that could be “technology designed to catch energy from the star.”
SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists have been searching for alien megastructures for years.
Wright and a team of astronomers began searching the universe for Dyson Spheres back in 2012.
In 2013, astronomer Geoff Marcy at the University of California at Berkeley was awarded a grant to hunt for evidence of Dyson spheres using Kepler data. A Dyson sphere is a theoretical megastructure envisioned by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson consisting of a giant array of solar panels that would surround a star to harvest its energy. Unfortunately, Marcy recently faced accusations of sexual harassment and has since resigned. It’s unclear if that particular research will continue in his absence.
But similar studies are underway.
Scientists hunting alien megastructures like Dyson spheres are also looking for theoretical structures known as ringworlds. Universe Today explains that ringworlds “would consist of a giant ring in orbit around a star, constructed comfortably inside the star’s habitable zone.”
Whether alien megastructures actually exist is unknown. But as Universe Today points out, “The possibility alone is exciting enough to make it worth continuing to look.”
As scientists continue exploring the possibility of an alien structure around KIC 8462852, Wright told The Atlantic, “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”