"We are looking at it with the Allen Telescope Array [ATA]," Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, told Space.com, although he added that people "should perhaps moderate their enthusiasm with the lessons of history."
The star, KIC 8462852, was discovered by Kepler, the NASA space telescope that looks for planets. It does this by observing regular dimming of stars due to the planets passing in front of them, or transiting. It has so far found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in about 440 stellar systems, but there are thousands more potentials that are waiting to be verified.
Kepler’s observation of KIC 8462852 has reported some unusual activity: the spacecraft detected irregular dips in brightness that are consistent with small masses orbiting together.
KIC 8462852 is also known as the WTF star, based on the title of the paper (Where’s The Flux?) by Tabetha Boyajian in which the peculiar object was discussed for the first time. The most likely explanation for the phenomenon is a swarm of comets which have been suddenly pushed towards to the star by a massive object, like a giant planet or a passing star.
Another explanation, considerably less likely but more popular, is that the light is stopped by a giant artificial structure, like a Dyson swarm: a hypothetical system of space satellites designed to capture a significant amount of light from the star to provide aliens with energy.
Several studies have been proposed to follow-up on Kepler’s observations, and SETI was the first to begin one. By using the ATA, SETI is going to look for radio emissions of artificial origin from around the WTF star. The ATA has 42 antennas that measure 6.1 by 7.0 meters wide (20 by 23 feet).
Although an alien discovery is improbable, these studies are important for scientific advancement. When pulsars were first discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish they were nicknamed “little green men,” as they were unsure the intermittent radio signal was entirely of natural origin. With the discovery of a second signal like this, the alien idea was completely abandoned and we now know that they were produced by fast-spinning, superdense stars that emit regular beams of radiation.
This study is only the first of on a potentially long series of observations by SETI based on Kepler’s data. The planet hunter’s data implies the possibility of billions of habitable rocky planets in the Milky Way – billions of possible leads for SETI astronomers to chase.
Image Credit: Allen Telescope Array by Bruce Fingerhood via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0