Intrigued by aliens, Edmonton high school astronomers study strange star

Research on a mysterious star, believed by some to be a mining site for an alien race, is earning a group of Edmonton high school students a place in the annals of science.

Tabby's Star has baffled scientists for years

Students from Jasper Place High School led a study of Tabby's Star, known for its mysterious history of dimming events. (Ian Doktor)

Research on a mysterious star, believed by some to be a mining site for an alien race, is earning a group of Edmonton high school students a place in the annals of science.

A paper penned by six students at Jasper Place High School has been peer-reviewed and published in the national journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

The publication is an impressive achievement for the young astronomers, said teacher Ian Doktor, who oversaw the student-led project.

"It's difficult to write an article of a high enough calibre to get published in a journal," Doktor said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It took a substantial amount of dedication because, for most of these students, it was something they had to do outside of class."

"The students themselves were very dedicated and motivated. They were interested. They were curious."

It's puzzled scientists for a long time and we still don't know what's going on with it.- Ian Doktor

The study of Tabby's Star was authored by grade 10, 11 and 12 students Noshin Atiah, Huyen Dang, Gabriel Sewell, Ryan Funk, Karim Vaiji and Tanjim Shahid.

"I was really excited about it when I found out," said Shahid, who co-authored the article titled Introduction to Photometry.

"At first, I just assumed that this would be a project that we would just do as kids that are interested in stuff like this, and we would just enjoy for ourselves. So it was pretty amazing." 

This illustration depicts KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby's Star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC))

The students spent weeks tracking the brightness of the infamous star, which has a mystifying history of losing it luminosity.

KIC 8462852 is considered an ordinary star. It's about 50 per cent bigger than our sun, about 1,000 degrees hotter and lies about 1,000 light years away.

The star, discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope in 2012, has a history of unexplained dimming events.

"The light from the star is not constant," said Doktor. "Most stars, their light will only vary by one per cent … this particular star dims by 20 per cent in some cases."

"It has puzzled scientists for a long time, and we still don't know what's going on with it."

While some scientists believe the erratic dimming may be caused by a trail of asteroids or a cloud of dust particles, there is a more far-fetched theory about what causes the phenomenon.

The strangest explanation is that a highly advanced civilization is harnessing the star's energy source — and that a mining megastructure is blocking out it's glow.

Doktor said the alien theory was a big selling point for his students.

"The fascinating thing about that is that, although no professional scientists really took it seriously, there was no way to conclusively rule it out.

"When I told the kids this, I think everyone in my astronomy class kind of perked up and went, 'Whoa, that's kind of cool.'"

Seeing the light

While the project was part of a regular year-end assignment for Doktor's astronomy students, some of the study authors were not part of the class but decided to sign on anyway.

The students took some evening field trips to observatories at the University of Alberta and King's University but did most of their data collection on a telescope in their teacher's backyard.

I like to think of like a flashlight.- Tanjim Shahid.

More than 100 photographs were collected each night then analyzed for their brightness, pixel by pixel.

"I like to think of like a flashlight," said Shahid, 17, who plans to pursue a PHD in physics after graduation.

"If you were holding a flashlight up and you were to take a marble and roll it across the view of the flashlight, that little dip in the light you would get from the shadow, that's essentially what we're looking for."

The young astronomers didn't capture any dramatic changes in the star during their study but still reached some important conclusions, said Doktor.

"The important thing that the kids learned is that, oftentimes in science, it's not these big wow discoveries that you make right away.

"But you have to be kind of methodical, and over time you build up data that helps other scientists and eventually leads to some interesting conclusions."