Most of the time, stars are pretty predictable. Our telescopes plot their brightening and dimming, usually caused by periodic planetary transits, without too many erratic deviations from the norm. But KIC 8462852 is different. This star is more massive, hotter, and brighter than the Sun. It’s about 1,500 light-years away—and NASA’s Kepler space telescope has seen some pretty weird data coming from it. There are huge, irregular dips in the light, sometimes dropping up to 22%.
Phil Plait: "Straight away, we know we’re not dealing with a planet here. Even a Jupiter-sized planet only blocks roughly 1 percent of this kind of star’s light, and that’s about as big as a planet gets. It can’t be due to a star, either; we’d see it if it were. And the lack of a regular, repeating signal belies both of these as well. Whatever is blocking the star is big, though, up to half the width of the star itself! There’s also an apparent change in brightness that seems to go up and down roughly every 20 days for weeks, then disappears completely. It’s likely just random transits, but still. It’s bizarre."
Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.
Several researcherss are now working with Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. They want to point a massive radio dish at the unusual star, to see if it emits radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity. If they see a sizable amount of radio waves, they’ll follow up with the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which may be able to say whether the radio waves were emitted by a technological source, like those that waft out into the universe from Earth’s network of radio stations.
Assuming all goes well, the first observation would take place in January, with the follow-up coming next fall.
Kemo D. 7