Civilian astronomers participating in the Kepler Planet Hunters program have identified unusual patterns in the light output of a star that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye — patterns that are being caused by an as yet unknown process. This appears to be some sort of huge debris field–or is it a field of artifacts created by an advanced alien civilization?
The star in question, KIC 8462852, is 1,500 light-years away, lies between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It was included as part of observations being made by the Kepler Space Telescope, which seeks signs of exoplanets around stars, by watching for dips in the stars’ light output.
However, KIC 8462852 drew particular attention to itself: civilian volunteers flagged it’s light patterns as "interesting" and "bizarre", seeming to show a mass of matter orbiting the star in tight formation. As the star is mature, this is not the sort of dust cloud seen around young stars. It may be be the debris field of a planetary collision or a mass of comets, but if so, nothing like it has ever been seen elsewhere. The possibility that it might represent engineered construction, although not very likely, also cannot be ruled out.
A paper published in Astronomical Society Notes by T.S. Boyajian and a group of colleagues explores the data originally retrieved in 2011 by Planet Hunters, a public group formed to assist Kepler scientists in processing the massive amounts of data being gathered by the telescope. While the paper does not rule out the possibility that the material is the product of engineering, it focuses on the probability that it is a massive cometary field.
Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, comments: “When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.” Massive constructions have been thought by scientists to be a signature artifact of Type 2 alien civilizations, measured on the Kardashev Scale, a system developed in 1964 by Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev to measure the development of such civilizations. A Type 2 civilization would be capable of creating so-called Dyson Spheres, or gigantic spheres that entirely surround a star, and Dyson Swarms, which might look like the mass of material orbiting KIC 8462852.
The Planet Hunters team will be working with SETI, and will be conducting radio telescope scans of KIC 8462852, looking for artificial radio signals that might be transmitted by an alien civilization. If these scans show promising results, they expect to follow those up with more detailed scans using the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico.
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