Data from the Kepler deep space telescope inspires wild theories—but few answers—about a very bizarre star.
image via (cc) flickr user nasamarshall
NASA’s Kepler space observatory is tasked with identifying distant planets orbiting far off stars light years away from our own. Since launching in 2009, scientists have used data gathered by Kepler to confirm the existence of over a thousand exoplanets. This has, in turn, helped shape and sharpen our understanding of how other stars and solar systems exist elsewhere in the fastness of space. However, there’s one object—or possibly a collection of many—that researchers haven’t been able to identify yet. Now astronomers are left scratching their heads, and offering some far out theories, about what might be happening in a distant patch in deep space, as they sift through a particularly strange batch of Kepler-gathered data.
image via (cc) flickr user nasablueshift
Sitting some fifteen hundred light years away from our own sun lies KIC 8462852. As part of the over one hundred thousand stars observed by the Kepler mission, researchers have been watching it for periodic “dips” in the light it emits. These dips might indicate an orbiting body momentarily—but regularly—blocking the stars illumination as a potential planet crosses between the it and Kepler’s light-sensitive receptors. What they’ve found, however, is that light from KIC 8462852 isn’t being blocked regularly, as it might be were a planet to be circling around it in a stable orbit. Rather, they’re irregularly spaced, and what’s more, they’re huge: Much larger than any planetary body conceivably would be. One observed “dip” blocked nearly a quarter of the light being put out by the far off sun (by comparison, points out Slate’s Phil Plait, a Jupiter-sized planet would only block a single percentage of this type of star’s light.)
Put simply, there’s something very, very strange about KIC 8462852.
In a paper entitled “Where’s the Flux?,” astronomers and scientists working with the volunteer Planet Hunters group (created by Kepler’s astronomic team to help them sift through the massive amount of light-based data the observatory had collected) write:
By considering the observational constraints on dust clumps orbiting a normal main-sequence star, we conclude that the scenario most consistent with the data is the passage of a family of exocomet fragments, all of which are associated with a single previous breakup event.
This theory—that the objects are causing the “dips” in the light observed from KIC 8462852 are exocomet fragments—hasn’t stopped some in the astronomy community from speculating on other, more...exotic explanations. Enter: The Dyson Sphere.
image via (cc) flickr user kevinmgill
First conceptualized by early science fiction author Olaf Stapledon, the Dyson Sphere takes it name from physicist Freeman Dyson, who theorized about a structure that could encapsulate most—if not all—of a star, thereby capturing a massive proportion of its solar energy. It would, if observed from the outside, block massive chunks of its enclosed sun’s light, and, were it arranged asymmetrically, do so at non-regular intervals.
In other words, it would look suspiciously similar to what Keplar has observed from KIC 8462852.
That, at least, is a plausible explanation for Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright. In The Atlantic, he says:
“When [“Where’s The Flux?” lead author and Yale postdoctoral student Tabetha Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked. Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
To that end, The Atlantic notes, Wright, Boyajian, and University of California—Berkley’s Andrew Siemion, who heads that school’s Search for Extraterrestrial Research center, are working on a proposal to follow up on the Kepler KIC 8462852 findings by directing powerful radio telescopes at the distant star, in an attempt to learn more about its bizarre output.
The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach cautions more than a liberal dose of skepticism for those out there chomping at the bit for an opportunity to phone ET’s home. “Anyone remember pulsars?” he asks, calling to mind those mysterious electromagnetic beats detected in deep space in the late 1960’s. They ended up not being some intergalactic beacon left by an intelligent civilization, but previously undiscovered neutron stars, instead.
Still, until astronomers actually learn more about KIC 8462852, who’s to say we haven’t stumbled upon the intergalactic find of the millennium? At the very least, it’s a great reminder that there’s a lot out there in the cosmos we know next to nothing about.
We’d better keep looking.
[via the atlantic]