A “bizarre” star that had astronomers talking about alien civilizations might not be as strange as first thought.
KIC 8462852, commonly referred to as “Tabby’s star” after the astronomer Tabetha Boyajian who studied the star’s odd behaviour, puzzled astronomers when it was first called to their attention.
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Using data from the Kepler Space Telescope, citizen scientists analyzed the light curve of this star. Light curves are used to determine whether or not a planet orbits around a star. As a planet passes in front of a star — such as Mercury did on Monday — the light from the star dips ever so minutely.
But what observers analyzing the data noticed from this somewhat average star was that it dipped by a lot. Instead of dipping somewhere near one per cent, it was closer to 20 per cent. As well, if a planet is orbiting a star, the dips would occur at regular intervals. However, this was not the case. Many catalogued it as “bizarre” and “strange.”
Some theories included a swarm of comets orbiting around the star, causing the large and irregular dips.
However, another theory was that it was a large alien structure similar to something called a Dyson sphere.
In the 1960s, Freeman Dyson theorized that alien civilizations will one day have need for a massive energy source. One of the most effective ways of obtaining such energy could result in the construction of a massive structure around a star — think of it as giant solar panels — that would gather all the star’s energy output. This came to be known as the Dyson sphere or Dyson swarm. If one of these giant structures was observed from afar, the observer would see large dips in a star’s brightness.
A example of a Dyson ring, similar to a Dyson sphere, which could collect energy from a star.
Then, in January, a paper made the star even stranger: an astronomer found that between 1890 to 1989, the star dipped by 20 per cent. The star is an F-type, main sequence star. It is about one to one-and-a-half times the mass of our own sun and slightly hotter. A change of 20 per cent should take place over millions of years, not 100.
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But new data suggests that the star didn’t dip at all during that time.
Astronomers using the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard analyzed more than 500,000 photographic glass plates by astronomers from 1885 to 1993. The new analysis found that in the 1960s other stars experienced similar drops in brightness. This, they concluded, suggests that the drop in Tabby’s star, among others, was a result of a change in instrumentation.
Still, even if there wasn’t an actual 20 per cent dip in Tabby’s star, considering the fact that it experiences irregular and often large dips in brightness over short intervals certainly makes this star one that needs further study. Though there’s still hope out there that it is an alien civilization, the SETI Institute, an organization searching for intelligent alien life, hasn’t found any indications of signals emanating from that region.