Strange star puzzles scientists, extra-terrestrial hopefuls
Thursday, October 15, 2015, 6:57 PM - Scientists have discovered what appears to be a mass of strange objects circling a distant star in the Milky Way. A recently-published paper argues the objects are the likely cause of a cosmic collision -- but that hasn't stopped some people from speculating the discovery is indicative of extra-terrestrial life. Either way, most scientists agree the star is fascinating and warrants further study.
The star in question is called Kepler Input Catalog 8462852 (KIC), and it resides in the constellation Cygnus.
The Kepler Space Telescope has been staring at the star -- along with 150,000 other stars in the same region -- since 2009. The telescope is searching for a phenomenon called 'occultation', i.e., the dimming and brightening of lights around stars.
Nearby orbiting planets are the main cause of occultation, and Kepler has used this technique to discover more than 4,000 Earth-like planets.
KIC has exhibited occultation, but in an unusual way.
Most of the time, the light around stars dims and brightens in predictable intervals. But the light around KIC is flickering irregularly, almost as if the star is orbited by a debris field with objects moving at different speeds.
According to The Atlantic, that wouldn't be out of the ordinary if the star was young, because new stars are surrounded by dust which gives off extra infrared light.
But KIC is a mature star and its light pattern has attracted a lot of attention. Over the years several citizen scientists have noticed KIC and flagged it occultation as 'interesting' or 'bizarre'.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, told the Atlantic.
“It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
Boyajian and a team of citizen scientists have published a paper detailing all the possible sources of the light 'dips' emanating from KIC.
"We presented an extensive set of scenarios to explain the occurrence of the dips, most of which are unsuccessful in explaining the observations in their entirety," the paper says in its conclusion.
"However, of the various considered, we find that the break-up of a exocomet provides the most compelling explanation."
KIC has garnered its share of media attention, but internet chatter has zoned in on Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, who plans to publish an alternate paper about the star.
Wright and his team believe the light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures".
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” 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.”
While the potential discovery of alien life has captured the attention of many, some scientists are quick to point out there are dozens of other potential explanations for KIC's strange light patterns.
Extra-terrestrials are a possibility, but the cause is likely something more commonplace, like an unusual distribution of space dust or, as the original paper points out, the break-up of an exoplanet.
Boyajian and her team are planning to turn a massive radio antenna towards KIC sometime in 2016 in hopes of learning more about the mysterious star.