Don't buy into the hype you've heard about citizen skywatchers possibly finding evidence of "alien megastructures" around a distant star with the lyrical name KIC 8462852. That's not exactly the case. But the fact remains, KIC 8462852 is weird, and it has left astronomers scratching their heads. Something is definitely causing the star to periodically dim in a way that makes little sense.
New Scientist reports the cause may be "a massive cloud of comets," since interplanetary bodies large and small cause variations in the light shed by distant stars—which is why KIC 8462852 drew the attention of amateur scientists monitoring star data collected at PlanetHunters.org. New Scientist explains what prompted these folks to pay closer attention:
Orbiting planets block their stars’ light for a few hours or days at regular intervals that correspond to the duration of their orbit. But this star seemed to have two small dips in 2009, a large, weirdly asymmetric dip lasting a week in 2011 and a series of many dips during three months in 2013, some reducing the brightness of the star by as much as 20 per cent.
Yale's Tabitha Boyajian put together a team to really examine KIC 8462852 because, she admitted to New Scientist, data from observations of this particular star really "was kind of unbelievable."
Boyajian and her team combined ground observation with output from the Kepler space telescope and they discovered none of them could agree about how to interpret the data. In the end, a comet storm that is probably hard to visualize without the aid of movie explosion king Michael Bay was the most rational possibility.
New Scientist's report states there is no known planet orbiting the mystery star, but if there were was and you were standing on the surface, Boyajian says you'd see "huge, like cosmic-scale fireworks" across the sky.
What about the talk of aliens? Well, okay, that isn't as crazy as usual. As Jason Wright, a Penn State astronomer, 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."
Boyajian is open-minded about that possibility as well, reports the Atlantic, as she is working with two researchers from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to point high-powered radio telescopes at KIC 8462852 to see if there is are "radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity."
Photos by NASA