Has an advanced alien civilisation built a mind-boggling megastructure around the distant star KIC 8462852? It’s extremely unlikely, but astronomers promised to get to the bottom of the cosmic mystery, and they need our help.
Lead Image: Tabby Boyajian
More specifically, they need our money. In order to figure out why KIC 8452852 flickers and fades at irregular intervals — unprecedented stellar behaviour that has left scientists scratching their heads and the rest of us praying for alien deliverance — we need to watch the star more closely, and we need to catch it doing something weird.
Now is our opportunity. For the past few months, KIC 8462852 was only visible during daylight hours, making it nigh impossible to observe from the ground. But as the star starts to become visible at night, the time is ripe to take a closer look. Tabby Boyajian, the Yale astronomer who’s been studying KIC 8462852 from the beginning, has just launched a Kickstarer campaign to secure the funds to do exactly that.
KIC 8462852 was first flagged by citizen scientists as they trawled through the vast astronomical database collected by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope between 2009 and 2013. The star wasn’t just unusual, it was astonishing. Over the course of four years, its light output intermittently tanked, sometimes by as much as 20 per cent. Boyajian and her colleagues came up with several hypotheses to explain what might be going on, including a swarm of comets, gravity darkening, and a giant, artificial construction — a so-called alien megastructure. None of these options is entirely satisfactory.
To figure out what’s really going on with this star, we need to catch it in the act of sputtering. As I wrote earlier this year:
When Kepler watched KIC 8462852 flicker several years back, it was only collecting white light — aggregating information across the visible spectrum. All we can do with this data is pinpoint dimming events. But if it happened again, astronomers would be prepared to make precise measurements in a broader range of wavelengths. As KIC 8462852’s starlight passes through whatever material is occluding it, certain colours will be absorbed more than others. This gives us a spectral fingerprint, which can be used to work out what type of material we’re looking at.
Figuring out what sort of material is occluding KIC 8462852 would go a long way toward ruling out different competing models. Whatever is causing this star to dim irregularly, it’s likely to be something we’ve never observed before, and studying the process in real-time would be an enormous boon to science.
And, on the astronomically outside chance that we discover the Borg, you’d want to be a part of that, wouldn’t you?