Monday, October 19, 2015

Have we really found an alien megastructure in space?

We may have found solid evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

I really need to emphasize the may in that sentence. What's more, the news isn't coming from whack-a-doo fringe websites that announce such claims on a weekly basis or that wax mawkish for scifi books and movies to become reality. No, this is coming from sources with solid reputations such as The Atlantic and PBS' NOVA. Here's what's happening:

Deep in space, about 1,500 light-years away, is a star that carries the poetic title of KIC 8462852. It is a star that is bigger, brighter, and hotter than the Sun. It is a star that the Kepler Space Telescope investigated for signs of exoplanets. One method by which exoplanets are detected is the "dip" they cause in their parent stars. As a planet passes in front of its star, from the point of view of our telescopes, it causes a reduction in the amount of light that reaches us as the planet temporarily blocks the light. This dip is usually about 9% at the most.

Well, something around KIC 8462852 is causing a dip of over 22%. This is much larger than a planet should be able to cause. Even a massive planet like Jupiter would only cause a 1% dip in the light of a star such as KIC 8462852. Therefore, astronomers are almost certain we're not dealing with a planet. What else could cause it? It can't be another star as we would certainly see that. Asteroids or comet fragments just shouldn't be that large, either, and besides the gravitational pull of the star would have sucked them into a fiery death by now. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that the massive dips in starlight are at irregular patterns. If it's a planet or another body in orbit around the star, then the dips should come at predictable intervals. These are not. There are also hundreds of dips when there should only be one in an orbit.

This is a light pattern that has not been found in the over 150,000 stars we have cataloged.

Most of the regular suspects in terms of astronomical causes are being ruled out and don't think people haven't tried to find a mundane cause. The first indication of this oddness was in 2009. In the years since then, astronomers having been trying to find any rational cause for it, even error or something like dust on the telescope. All due diligence has been pursued...and is still being attempting to verify what this is before calling it what's on everyone's minds:

A massive solar collector built by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

For many years it has been theorized that sufficiently advanced lifeforms...and maybe even humans one day, provided we live that long...would develop the ability to fully harness the energy emitted by their home star. This could be done in a few different ways. One would be a Dyson Sphere. This the term for a hypothetical megastructure that a civilization would build around a star in order to capture the solar energy as fully as possible. The idea was first raised by science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon but was popularized by physicist Freeman Dyson. Those of you who are Star Trek fans may recall a Dyson Sphere from the episode "Relics" in the run of The Next Generation. Observe:

Another method would be to place an orbital solar collector in space. In order for this method to be effective, it would have to be of massive size and you would need to be able to move it and otherwise adjust its position to get the most from it. So far, this seems to be a good match for what is being seen around KIC 8462852.

Still, we're a very long way from proclaiming this a sign of extraterrestrial life. Too many times in the past have astronomers innocently mistaken what is now known as completely naturally occurring phenomena as telltale signs of E.T. There is also a plethora of other stupid claims regarding alien lifeforms that serious scientists don't want to be associated with. We can only wait to see what new data comes to light in order to draw any firm conclusions.

But it's looking very odd right now...

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