The award for strangest star in the universe just went to KIC 8462852.
Business Insider recently spoke with two of these astronomers to find out what’s really going on and if this structure really is proof of alien intelligence or a complete hoax.
For some background: A postdoctoral graduate at Yale, Tabby Boyajian, and Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, recently discovered a bizarre and mysteriously giant structure orbiting the star that’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
And now they’re doing what scientists do best: weighing all of the possible explanations until more data comes in that can rule out the wrong reasons in favor of the right one.
Right now, there are many options on the table, including a giant swarm of comets, left-over chunks from a broken-up planet, and last but certainly not least an alien-built megastructure. But we won’t know for sure until more data is collected.
Is it aliens?
As Penn State astronomer Kimberly Cartier told Business Insider about the coverage: “It’s gotten a bit out of hand.” What’s more, she said that the probability of this exciting, yet wildly confusing, observation being aliens is “very low.”
She also emphasized: “Just to clarify, neither [my colleague] Jason [Wright] or myself … are advocating that it is an alien megastructure, but we also can’t completely rule it out.”
Cartier works with Wright who is spearheading the search for these megastructures as a way to enhance the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project. The two collaborated on a scientific paper about how to go about finding these structures back in 2009.
Moreover, Wright recently blogged about his work with KIC 8462852.
His post does an excellent job of presenting the data in a straight-forward, non-hyped way. But as he recently told Atlantic reporter Ross Andersen, “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
We asked Wright how he felt about the hype his quote has since spawned.
“I think the star is really inexplicable, but I would put the probability that [aliens] is what it is as very low.”
What’s really going on
Right now, the only scientific information astronomers have for star KIC 8462852 is its light curves, which is an estimate of how much light Earth receives from the star over a given period of time.
These light curves reveal that something giant, about half the width of the star, is blocking the light but in bizarre bursts that are anything but periodic. If the obstruction were a planet eclipsing the star, it would block the light with a predictable pattern as the planet orbited the star.
But “the eclipses have very strange shapes in the sense that whatever is blocking it is not a circular object,” Wright told Business Insider. “And there’s lots of them – lots of things blocking the star. When you put all that together, there’s nothing like that [anywhere else] in the sky. It’s unique and very very strange.”
These light curves were first collected by a post doctoral fellow at Yale, Tabby Boyajian. After Boyajian presented them at Penn State, Wright took an immediate interest and soon after contacted Andrew Siemion, who works at the Berkeley SETI Research Center. The two submitted a telescope proposal to study the star in more detail that is still pending.
What Wright would like to do next is take what are called spectra of the star. Spectra are a critical tool in astronomy that allows researchers to essentially take a chemical fingerprint of an object that tells them what it’s made of.
“I want to see spectra when its dim and spectra when its bright and compare the two,” Wright said. “And the difference should tell us what the light is passing through and tell us whatever is blocking it, what that’s made of. That will be very diagnostic.”
Is Earth doomed?
In the mean time, as we wait for Wright and Siemion to collect more information, it is worth addressing the possibility that if (and that’s a very big if) this structure were made by an alien civilization, is Earth doomed?
To that, Cartier said absolutely not.
If the structure were artificial, it would be what Cartier and Wright describe as a Dyson sphere, which is a type of energy generating device that was first described by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in a paper published by Science in 1960.
“The structure itself is not meant to support life, Cartier told Business Insider. “It’s something called a Dyson sphere, which is essentially a large porous series of solar panels … that’s meant to capture some of the starlight and convert it into usable energy for a civilization that’s orbiting farther out in a region that would be more habitable.”
While constructing a Dyson sphere would require a tremendous amount of resources, it does not take technology that is vastly advanced to our own to build. That means, these potential alien beings have not likely invented warp drives to skip across the galaxy just yet.
“Certainly to build a structure that big requires a lot more resources and potentially more advanced technology than we currently have available to us,” Cartier told Business Insider. “However that doesn’t imply that they have the capabilities to travel all the way here to Earth.”
Moreover, if this, in fact, were a Dyson sphere, it would be a work in progress because of its apparent shape, Cartier later told Business Insider in an email.
The star KIC 8462852 is over 1,400 light years from Earth. So, don’t worry, the world won’t be coming to an end due to an alien invasion any time soon.