Nestled between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra sits what might be the strangest, most mysterious star in our galaxy. This star, designated as KIC 8462852, is not particularly unusual in and of itself. What's odd is what astronomers have spotted orbitting it: an irregularly-shaped mess of objects that appear unnatural, possibly even alien, reports The Atlantic.
The star was first flagged by amateur astronomers in 2011 for its peculiar dimming pattern, as detected by the Kepler Space Telescope. By themselves, dimming patterns in distant stars are not that usual. In fact, they are what Kepler scientists look for in their hunt for faraway planets. As planets pass in front of their stars, they momentarily block out a portion of the light being emitted by the star, thus revealing themselves. Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered this way in recent years.
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The dimming pattern identified in KIC 8462852, however, was unlike any discovered among the over 150,000 stars that have been analyzed by the Kepler Space Telescope. The pattern suggested that KIC 8462852 was surrounded by a whole jumble of objects in extremely tight formation. Such a pattern might be expected from a young star, with a solar system that was first forming. Young solar systems are typically characterized by a messy field of debris, which eventually coalesces into a system of planets as the star's gravity molds and shapes them. But KIC 8462852 is not a young star. A field of dust surrounding a young star would give off infrared light, and excess infrared light is not observed here.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” explained Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
It should be reiterated that this mess of objects is irregularly shaped. It's not something that should form naturally, not given a sufficient amount of time, anyway. So it's likely that it was deposited there recently, because otherwise such a field of objects would have been shaped into a more regular pattern or swallowed up by the star's gravitational field by now.
So what is it? Scientists have considered a number of scenarios, from instrument defects, to an asteroid belt pileup, to planets crashing into one another. But at this juncture the list of possible explanations has been narrowed to two. First, it's possible that the debris field could be a sea of comets, recently yanked inward into the solar system by the gravity of another close-passing star. This sort of event would represent an extraordinary coincidence, though — a rare event, one not observed in any other star ever observed.
The second possibility that can't be ruled out is a wild one, an explanation that scientists don't put forward lightly. It's possible that there is no natural explanation for the objects circling KIC 8462852 at all. It's possible they are alien.
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“When [I was shown] the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” explained Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, to 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.”
In other words, it could be a swarm of mega-structures put there by ET — our first glimpse at alien technology. Perhaps it's a fleet of alien spacecraft, perhaps a network of stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star. You can let your imagination run wild.
The idea has garnered enough momentum that researchers at SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) have submitted a proposal to point a massive radio dish at the unusual star, to see if it emits radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity. If such radio waves are detected, then things would get serious.
The first observation isn't expected to happen until January, however. Depending on how those measurements go, follow-up research would occur in the ensuing months.
If the truth is out there, it might be found circling KIC 8462852. It could be the most exciting news in the history of astronomy, or just another cosmological coincidence. We may find out soon enough.