The search for intelligent life in the universe might be heating up, as a trio of astronomers are focusing their efforts on a distant star that’s behaving in some very unusual way. There’s a tiny chance that they’re detecting an alien megastructure, but conspiracy theorists want to know: If they find anything, will the government allow that world-changing knowledge to go public?
In a live chat on Wednesday, three scientists who are studying KIC 8462852, a body 1,400 light years away that’s affectionately called Tabby’s Star, assured questioners that they don’t need to worry about the Men in Black or the government preventing them from publishing their findings.
“I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past the global world government,” Penn State Professor Jason Wright jokingly answered with a laugh. “But I don’t think so.”
It wasn’t the only question during the chat that touched on government suppression. Interest is high because Tabby’s Star is one of the most intriguing (if still unlikely) leads on finding E.T. out there.
The star has been the source of a lot of attention ever since last year, when scientists noticed that the light cast from the far-off star was being dimmed in an unexplainable way. The most exciting answer to this mystery was an alien megastructure. It’s a wild, totally unproven theory, but astrologists haven’t come up with anything other definitive answers.
That’s why, starting on Wednesday, UC Berkeley’s Breakthrough Listen project is going to use the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope at the Green Bank Observatory to study Tabby’s Star, and try to find out what’s causing it to behave in such weird ways.
If it’s aliens, Berkeley SETI Research Center Director Dr. Andrew Siemion said the government wouldn’t make them hide the truth.
“Absolultey not,” he said during the live chat. “There has never been any interference from any government of any kind of anything we’ve done.”
Wright noted that the government’s lack of involvement wasn’t “purely hypothetical,” explaining that there have been numerous false alarms over the decades, and the government didn’t ever step in then.
“And in fact, we would like the gov to be more engaged with SETI, to be honest with you,” Siemion continued, suggesting that the search for extra-terrestrial life could use a little more help.
Earlier in the chat, the pair, along with Louisiana State University Professor Tabetha Boyajian (Tabby’s namesake), explained that they aim to make SETI as transparent as possible. The group said they would release major findings as soon as they had properly studied and confirmed them, and would make all of their raw data publicly available.
Of course, wondering if the Men in Black, or some other secret government agency, are going to suppress an alien discovery is jumping ahead quite a few steps. The Berkeley SETI Research Center first needs to determine what’s really causing Tabby’s Star’s unprecedented dimming.
A couple other possibilities were discussed during the live chat. Comets passing in front of (or colliding with) the star might explain it, but Boyajian says it would take “hundreds to thousands of very giant comets just to produce the past 30 days of the data.” Two nearby planets colliding would produce a lot of dust, yes, but they would also absorb the starlight, and cast off a lot of infrared rays, which we’re not seeing.
It’s not a black hole, because the star isn’t wobbling, but the scientists say we could be looking at the star through a cloud of debris a black hole is sucking in. “It’s not the blackness of a black hole that’s making a star dimmer, it’s the stuff around the hole,” they said.
The three astronomers didn’t have a real consensus on which theory they thought was the most plausible. “I don’t know where to rank alien civilizations on that scale of plausibility,” Wright said, though he and Siemion both noted that it was their favorite theory.
Photos via 20th Century Fox, NARO/Wikimedia Commons, Sony Pictures