KIC 8462852. Hardly a household name. But it may be, one day soon, or at least when it garners a more prosaic name. It’s a star and it sits rather forlornly in space in the rightmost edge of the constellation Cygnus, almost 1,500 light years away. And although it’s too dim to be seen by the naked eye, it has caught the attention of astronomers and conspiracy theorists alike, worldwide.
KIC 8462852 is a mature F3-class sun, more massive than the Sun and both brighter, hotter. It’s the kind of sun we usually search for habitable planets around, at least within the range of potential candidates. But it’s been watched for the past six years with growing fascination and wonder. As Science Alert tells us:
It was first discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in 2009, and scientists have been tracking the light it emits ever since, along with the light of another 150,000 or so newly discovered stars. They do this because it’s the best way to locate distant planets – slight, periodic dips in a star’s brightness signal the fact that it might have one or more large objects orbiting it in a regular fashion.
These brightness dips are usually very slight, with the stars dimming by less than 1 percent every few days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the planet’s orbit.
That dimming is usually regular and explicable, and small. Not so with KIC 8462852. Its brightness has dipped inexplicably in large amounts with unnerving regularity, every 750 days, reaching levels of 15% and even 22% reduction of light for between five and 80 days.
Scientists scratch their head and wonder what could be large enough to diminish the light from a bright star by that amount. No planet could ever be that big. And it would have to be an enormous cloud of space junk – an improbable amount in a very tight formation – to do it.
Of the 156,000 stars examined in the four-year Kepler study, KIC 8462852 is the only one to exhibit anything like this. That alone makes the star worth attention. It’s bizarre and that deserves further research to help us understand the universe, aliens or not.
Could the reason for this light reduction be artificial? Gasp. That notion has been touted, not by the usual collection of alien-obsessed wingnuts and UFO hunters, but by serious scientists. They are at a loss to find a natural cause that fits the data.
True, that would be a huge construction, beyond anything we can even plan for, with today’s technology. But what about an older, more advanced civilization with greater technological resources?
Astronomer Phil Plait threw out some fun notions in his column on Slate:
Freeman Dyson popularized an interesting idea: What if we built thousands of gigantic solar panels, kilometers across, and put them in orbit around the Sun? They’d capture sunlight, convert it to energy, and that could be beamed to Earth for our use. Need more power? Build more panels! An advanced civilization could eventually build millions, billions of them.
This idea evolved into what’s called a Dyson Sphere, a gigantic sphere that completely encloses a star. It was popular back in the 1970s and 80s; there was evenan episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation about one. Dyson never really meant that we’d build an actual sphere; just lots of little panels that might mimic one.
But it raises an interesting possibility for detecting alien life. Such a sphere would be dark in visible light but emit a lot of infrared. People have looked for them, but we’ve never seen one (obviously).
Which brings us back to KIC 8462852. What if we caught an advanced alien civilization in the process of building such an artifact? Huge panels (or clusters of them) hundreds of thousands of kilometers across, and oddly-shaped, could produce the dips we see in that star’s light.
A Dyson sphere in the making? Well, it’s a cool idea to ponder while watching reruns of Deep Space Nine or Star Trek, but not likely. Be skeptical. Be very skeptical.
Never forget that the “Face on Mars” turned out to be a bunch of rocks and shadows. We can’t determine the answer beforehand and then make the data fit the expected results. It may prove something quite ordinary, something that we just never experienced in that manner before.
Keep in mind that the light we’re seeing today left the star 1,480 years ago. Could something else have happened since? Or has something as yet unseen intervened between us and that star? Or is there some mechanical-technical explanation we haven’t discovered yet, some as-yet undiscovered flaw in the hardware?
Explanations are wanting. But while we may never know for sure the cause of this phenomenon, if it does prove real and not just an artifact, it does say a lot about us.
Interest online in this distant, fluctuating gas ball has grown exponentially, as such things are wont to do on the internet. People, even those of a skeptical mindset, are fascinated, and want it to prove to be some alien infrastructure, some offworld mega-construction so we can at last say, “We are not alone.”
Scientific resources are being turned to deeper and fuller investigation. Arrays of radio telescopes are being cranked to that quadrant of the sky, hunting for radio signals that could suggest an intelligent source. That assumes, of course, we could not only recognize their signals if found, but understand – or decode – them.
We all want an answer to that question: “Are we alone in the universe?” We’re scouring Mars, searching the outer planets for the answer. But finding simple lifeforms, like bacteria, clinging to precarious and hostile environments isn’t enough. What we really want to know is, “Is there intelligent life out there?”
It’s not just the wingnuts who care about the answer. Everyone has a stake in it. It affects religion, biology, philosophy, literature, culture, beliefs… so many aspects of our lives. How we react to the answer, individually or collectively, also speaks volumes about who we are and what sort of society we live in. Are we open, closed, brave, afraid, will we accept or reject the answer?
And, as Stephen Hawking says, even if intelligent aliens could likely destroy us all, let’s keep looking for them anyway. Of course, he was basing that prediction on his understanding of the sad state of human barbarity, and it is conceivable that aliens are more mature and wiser than we have so far proven.
But don’t worry if there are aliens on or around KIC 8462852.They’re too far away to ever reach us. But imagine the movies we could make from the idea…