Yale scientist discovers strange star, internet decides it's aliens
Strange data from Kepler space telescope interpreted by some as evidence of alien life
Scientists using the Kepler space telescope have found something very strange orbiting a star 1,400 light years away from Earth, and the discovery has some people online talking about little green men.
Kepler, which was launched in 2009 and on Oct. 13 was orbiting 120 million kilometres away from Earth, looks for minute dips in the amount of light coming from a star. The dips can be an indication of a large object, such as a planet, passing between the telescope and the star.
On Sept. 14, Yale's Tabetha Boyajian published a paper, along with several collaborators, titled "KIC 8462852 — Where's the flux?"
The paper described the strange situation, with the observations of a star situated between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra.
22 times bigger than Jupiter
In their observations of KIC 8462852, the researchers found that an object large enough to block 22 per cent of the star's light orbited about every 750 days.
For comparison sake, according to NASA's Kepler FAQ, a Jupiter-sized planet would only block one to two per cent of a star's light.
Several hundred other, smaller, irregularly-shaped objects were also observed orbiting the star.
"This would not be a problem if KIC 8462852 were an isolated young star, but there is no evidence for that," Boyajian writes in the paper.
She provides several possible explanations, including: a massive planetary collision, which created a debris cloud large enough to block 22 times more light than a Jupiter-sized planet; collisions in an asteroid belt, and planets surrounded by massive dust clouds.
Boyajian concludes that most of their theories "are unsuccessful in explaining the observations in their entirety," but acknowledges that "the break-up of exocomets is the most compelling explanation."
Aliens 'as a last resort'
But Pennsylvania State University professor Jason T. Wright disagrees with her theory.
In 2014, Boyajian showed Wright her data and asked what he thought it could be.
In a blog post, he wrote, "One of the things that occurred to me is that a civilization that would build one megastructure would eventually build more. The star might be surrounded by them."
But he quickly dismissed this theory — "You should reserve the alien hypothesis as a last resort."
In the blog post, he proposed an alternative to Boyajian's exocomet theory: "If I had to guess I'd say the star is young, despite all appearances."
I am a bit embarrassed about the less responsible reporting overstating the evidence here.- Jason T. Wright
Despite his skepticism of the alien hypothesis, Wright has reached out to a colleague involved in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program and asked him to take a listen to KIC 8462852 with a radio telescope for signals.
Wright wrote that his colleague was "initially skeptical, but he quickly agreed that this is a great target."
Despite the list of non-alien related explanations, the internet has seized upon the idea that the observations are alien in origin and filled Google searches with headlines like "Has Kepler Discovered an Alien Megastructure?"
Wright writes that he's glad Boyajian's "star is getting so much media coverage. It's a great mystery!" At the same time, he said he's "a bit embarrassed about the less responsible reporting overstating the evidence here."
Information Radio will talk to Tyler Foster, chair of the physics and astronomy department at Brandon University, about the strange discovery just after the 6 a.m. news Friday on CBC Radio One 990 AM / 89.3 FM.