Astronomers are preparing to observe an unusual star closer to see if it's being circled by 'alien technology'

Kepler – planet-hunter. Picture: NASA Ames/ W Stenzel

It’s not often that you’ll find an astronomer so publicly willing to get excited about spaceships.

But Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is about to publish a paper which lays out an alien technology theory that everyone hopes is solid, but no one but him really wants to talk about officially.

First, some background is needed. On September 14, Yale postdoc Tabetha Boyajian published this paper along with some citizen scientists about one of the first stars observed by the Kepler Space Telescope in 2009.

Kepler watched KIC 8462852 for four years, along with about 150,000 other stars. The telescope has since become something of a celebrity, because by watching for dips in the light the stars emit, it has since found evidence of more than 1000 exoplanets. Its confirmation of possible life-supporting “super-Earths” are now a regular press event.

But KIC 8462852 is different.

Picture: NASA/Getty Images

A huge bunch of something

In 2011, a group of citizen scientists from Planet Hunters raised an alert that the light pattern coming from KIC 8462852 showed it was being circled by a huge bunch of… something.

If it were a young star, it would be a much less surprising finding, because young stars are generally surrounded by a disk of dense gas and dust. In time, it would form planets and they would behave accordingly.

But KIC 8462852 is not a young star, because that dust that surrounds young stars also gives off infrared light, and there’s only a minimal amount of infrared light around KIC 8462852.

So it’s an old star which quite obviously has a large group of objects still circling it, intermittently blocking photons which would otherwise have been beamed to the Kepler Space Telescope.

And because they’re still circling it, it’s sensible to say they’ve arrived comparatively recently, as objects circling stars either consolidate or die very quickly.

It’s important to note here that Boyajin – who oversees Planet Hunters – makes no mention of alien technologies in her paper on KIC 8462852. The team gives several possible explanations for the anomaly, the most likely of which is a band of comets has somehow been pulled into an irregular orbit around the star.

A ‘hazard to civilisation’

Nelson, New Zealand-based Duncan Steel is a professor of astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England. Among other things, he’s worked as a space scientist at the NASA-Ames Research Center in California, and discovered a main-belt asteroid and 11 minor planets.

The ESA is watching Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko break up. Picture: ESA/AOES Medialab

Boyajian cites some of his work in her paper, so it’s no surprise he’s on the side of this all having a natural explanation, whatever it turns out to be.

Rather than call it a mystery, Prof Steel told Business Insider it’s “an interesting set of observations, to be continued”, and for reasons other than alien life, he’ll be watching closely.

In December, he’ll be publishing his own paper with associates titled “Centaurs as a hazard to civilisation”. “Centaurs” are complexes of gigantic outer solar system objects, including giant comets, which every million years or so, get “passed inwards” when they stray too close to Neptune.

“Once they become crossers of the outer planets, the huge masses of the planets and the frequency of close approaches to those planets cause the orbits of the Centaurs to alter quickly, and haphazardly,” Prof Steel says.

And break-ups occur due to tidal stress from planets and thermal stress due to heating by sunlight.

Prof Steel’s opinion is it’s a “calamitous event” which we should all be far more worried about than the occasional random asteroid impact. And he’s hoping to see evidence of it in January, when Boyajian and her team hopefully get a proper look at KIC 8462852.

But here’s the kicker – if that’s the case, it’s something not yet detected in any other of Kepler’s 150,000-odd subjects.

Japan’s space agency JAXA has a proposal to harvest solar energy from space. Picture: JAXA

Alien energy harvest

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Boyajian told The Atlantic this week, before dropping a tiny bombshell. She told The Atlantic her paper only discussed “natural” scenarios, as is right and proper.

In January, she’s proposing to gain access to the NRAO’s Green Bank Telescope to search for radio waves. If they find anything, that could give them a leg-up to use the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the mystery could be solved.

But, she told The Atlantic, there were “other scenarios” worth considering, and that’s where Wright, from PSU, has done a great job of drawing publicity to the project.

“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.”

Yes, Wright is a genuine astronomer, and together with researchers from Mountain View’s SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) he’s happy to suggest KIC 8462852’s light pattern hints at a “swarm of megastructures” possibly designed to collect energy from the star.

He’ll be joining Boyajian at the NRAO’s Green Bank Telescope – no doubt along with thousands of something-is-out-there believers online.

Prof Steel is having none of it.

Well, maybe just the tiniest bit.

“I would lay $1,000 to get $1,001 back that this is a natural phenomenon,” he told Business Insider.

“However, we must/should remain open to other explanations… (but) I would be very doubtful that this observed peculiarity has a cause that is non-natural.”

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