The star KIC 8462852 is behaving strangely. Known as Tabby’s Star, it quickly drew the attention of astronomers and scientists because of its odd light output.
When observed from extreme distances, objects such as planets or asteroids momentarily block the light of the star. It happens because they cross in front of it resulting in a perceived dimming. The amount that the star ‘dims’ is enough to learn about the celestial bodies orbiting the star. This astronomical method, known as ‘Transit Photometry’, is singularly responsible for discovering over 1000 exoplanets over the past three years.
WTF: WHERE’S THE FLUX
Even the largest gas giant planet is tiny compared to the vast majority of stars. Thus, this ‘dimming’ of light is typically only a few percent of the stars total light output. However, Tabby’s Star dims by roughly ten to 20 percent, which is far too much for even the largest of planets or asteroids. As a result, KIC 8562852 now has an unofficial nickname “WTF Star.”
Scientists from around the world are poring over data taken from NASA’s Kepler telescope to try and understand the reasoning behind these odd oscillations, but there has been no breakthrough yet.
A LONG, LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…
It’s important to note that Tabby’s Star is 1480 light years away- which means that the light that we are observing is 1480 years old. Essentially, what we see in 2015 using telescopes and radio arrays is what was happening at Tabby’s Star during 535 CE on Earth.
Naturally, this means the only method we have of directly observing Tabby’s Star is through high-resolution telescopes and careful analysis of the resulting images.
Tabby’s Star and Potential Explanations
The light fluctuations are far too large to be caused by any assortment of planets or asteroids. The mechanical error has been ruled out. So what is the cause behind these anomalous light patterns?
One early hypothesis was a collision between two planets; the resulting cloud of dust and gasses could plausibly cause this sort of dimming. However, this sort of cataclysmic impact between planetary bodies would release a tremendous amount of heat.
Some scientists believe that Tabby’s star may have acquired a massive asteroid field or been obscured by disintegrating comets. Although these may explain the light patterns, the probability of asteroids or comets behaving in that manner is very low. Other scientists postulate that a series of gas giants with massive rings orbit Tabby’s star. Unfortunately, current orbital telescopes lack the resolution to confirm this hypothesis.
Dyson Spheres and Tabby’s Star
The most controversial hypothesis by far is that the light fluctuations are due to a Dyson Sphere. A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical method of harnessing energy from a star by surrounding it with a solar panel ‘shell’. Only a civilization with great scientific and technical prowess could manage such a feat. However, no one came up with evidence to support the hypothesis that Tabby’s Star is home to advanced alien civilizations.
Coupled with the recent discovery of flowing salt water on Mars, a large portion of public interest has been drawn to this astronomical oddity. The SETI announced that it would aim the exquisitely sensitive Allen Telescope Array toward the vicinity of the star. It might helpt to search for possible extraterrestrial radioactivity. The next generation of orbital telescopes, such as NASA’s TESS and the ESA’s PLATO will also investigate Tabby’s Star further. Whether the light fluctuations of KIC 8562852 are due to alien megastructures or unknown celestial interactions- only time will tell