On Tuesday, The Atlantic reported on a new study conducted by Yale University astronomers that could, perhaps, maybe, doubtfully, possibly indicate the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. The study lit up the internet, which is fitting, because it’s about a star.
KIC 8462852, which sits in between the constellations Lyra and Cygnus, was spotted by the Kepler Space Telescope about six years ago. Astronomers back on the ground noticed that there was unusual activity in the light being emitted around the star, unlike anywhere else over 150,000 observed stars. Around KIC 8462852, Kepler was picking up dips in the brightness, probably due to orbiting objects.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, the lead researcher of the study told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
But KIC 8462852 isn’t young — it’s a mature star. Gravity would have forced the dust and debris to settle down by now. So what the hell is all of this strange mess of matter orbiting it?
Enter Jason Wright, the Penn State University astronomer, suggesting the irregular reading might be a product of orbital megastructures, essentially massive alien satellites. Megastructures, Wright says, would be “very large” — and likely made of very thin materials to offset the constraints imposed by launching and controlling big objects. Wright’s suggestion was, in a sense, Occam’s Razor reasoning: Astronomical explanations couldn’t account for brightness dropping by a staggering 22 percent. To give a sense of just how extreme that number is, a planet the size of Jupiter would block about 1 percent of light — and planets don’t get much bigger than that.
Wright has been studying megastructures for quite some time. Asked why, he’s self-effacing about it, saying “mainly due to the fact that nobody else was doing it.” When he saw the Yale researchers’ data, he thought he might have finally found what he was — rather uniquely — looking for. He says that if these are megastructures, they most likely consist of solar panels used for intense energy needs. Other possibilities are gigantic telescopes used for interstellar observation, beacons that act like landmarks for travelers, or structures to fulfill other purposes we can’t even consider. The megastructures might even be currently under construction, which would make sense considering how weird and nonuniform the light patterns are.
Any of which would indicate the existence of an intelligent alien race.
However, Wright cautions that the likelihood of alien life being responsible for these light patterns is “very low.” It’s much more likely another explanation. Wright says he’s put out one hypothesis among many others, and good science requires a responsible degree of skepticism for any of them.
The actual paper, recently uploaded to the ArXiv repository by the Yale researchers, doesn’t even mention extraterrestrial life. It runs through a series of “natural” theories that explain the unusual light activity — everything from strange rock buildup, to large-scale impacts (like the one that formed our moon), to problems with Kepler’s instruments. The strongest theory is also the most improbable: that another moving star pulled in a bunch of comets into KIC 8462852’s system, causing a dimming pattern in the light. That would be an extreme coincidence.
Wright is currently working with lead author of the Yale paper, Tabetha Boyajian, and the director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Andrew Siemon, to draft a proposal for pointing a radio dish at the star and look for radio waves associated with intelligent alien activity. If they find enough preliminary evidence, they’ll move onto using more powerful equipment to confirm their suspicions.