It seems that KIC 8462852 just can’t stay out of the limelight at the moment. Fresh off the back of speculation that there is a very, very slim chance an "alien megastructure" might be orbiting it, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) has asked its members to study the star in more detail.
This 1.5 solar mass star, 1,500 light-years away, is of interest because the other day it was revealed that an unexplainable large mass is orbiting it, blocking out up to 20% of its light for up to four days at a time. While the cause of this is almost certainly natural, the mystery of what it could be has set minds racing.
In a paper describing the finding, the researchers said that a swarm of comet debris was the favored theory at the moment. Jason Wright of Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study, later suggested in The Atlantic the very slim possibility it was caused by a structure built by an alien civilization, a topic he co-authored a paper on.
“The AAVSO requests time-series observations of the enigmatic variable object KIC 8462852 beginning immediately,” the AAVSO, whose members are mostly amateur astronomers that provide data for professionals, said in an alert notice. “The star is relatively bright and shows aperiodic dips of a few tenths of a magnitude, the causes of which are unknown."
Debris from a comet or even a planet could be the cause. Diego Barucco/Shutterstock.
These observations will add to those already being undertaken by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, who are looking for signals coming from the star that would indicate the presence of intelligent life. “No clear cut signals have been seen so far,” SETI’s director Seth Shostak told IFLScience, but he said they were continuing observations with more sensitive receivers. “Keep in mind, the object is quite far away,” he added.
Of course, the chances that this is a product of artificial life – such as a Dyson Sphere, a vast structure to harness the power of a star – are extremely slim. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider,” Wright told The Atlantic last week. “But this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
While that scenario remains unlikely, it could well be that there is a natural phenomenon around the star that has not been observed before – which would itself be a major discovery. It’s worth bearing in mind that pulsars were initially hinted at being artificial in nature, but were later proven to be fascinating in their own right, as rapidly spinning neutron stars.
Steve Howell, deputy project scientist on NASA's Kepler mission – data from which was used to observe KIC 8462852 – noted to IFLScience that a similarly odd signal in the past turned out to be a multi-system of five stars, and a similar explanation could befall this one. “I think this object, this new 'megastructure' object, I think we’ll end up with some interesting and unique solution, but I think it will be stars, or broken up planet pieces or something,” he said. “I don’t think it will be aliens.”
For now, we’ll have to wait and see as the world trains its eyes on KIC 8462852.