High School Students Reveal Secrets Of Mysterious Tabby's Star

Dust seems to have played a role in the recent dips in light from Tabby's Star. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tabby’s star is known as the most mysterious star in the Milky Way and for good reason. The amount of light we receive from the star has varied wildly with dips that are difficult for us to explain. The object is currently being monitored worldwide by professional and volunteer astronomers who are trying to unfurl its mystery. Among them are two high school students who have conducted some intriguing new analyses.

Yao Yin and Alejandro Wilcox are seniors at The Thatcher School in California. The two students used the boarding school's observatory to track the star under the supervision of faculty member Dr Jonathan Swift. They followed the variation in the star’s light and think they might have identified an important player in how it changes. Dust.

According to their research, grains of dust that differ either in composition or in size distribution might have had a role in the recent dips in luminosity. These dips happened just a few months ago and involved reductions in the amount of light we get from the star of 4 and 5 percent respectively. To put this into context, planets transiting in front of their star usually block a few percents of the light coming from it.

These are clearly significant dips but they are small compared to the ones observed by the Kepler Observatory a few years ago. The planet-hunting telescope saw the star’s brightness dip by 22 and 15 percent, which baffled scientists. That’s when the star became known to the public. The idea that an alien megastructure might be orbiting around the star shot it to sudden Internet fame.

It has been proven that no such structure orbits the star but the idea pretty much made the star a household name. Obviously not its technical name, which is KIC 8462852, but rather its affectionate nickname, Tabby's star, along with the notion that it's the most mysterious star in the galaxy. The star is named after Dr Tabetha Boyajian, who led the first paper on the object and has since then spearheaded observations of the star after Kepler moved onto other targets.

Complex solutions to the star’s mysterious characteristics remain abundant (such as the weird planet one) and researchers have previously suggested that peculiar dust clouds could explain all the dips. This work certainly brings us a step forward. Continuous observations remain our best bet to fully understand what goes on.

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