Did Astronomers Just Find Evidence of an Extraterrestrial Dyson Sphere?

Wednesday, 14 October 2015 - 10:09AM
Astrobiology
Astronomy
Alien Life
Wednesday, 14 October 2015 - 10:09AM
Did Astronomers Just Find Evidence of an Extraterrestrial Dyson Sphere?
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Relics," the crew of the USS Enterprise-D comes upon a full Dyson sphere, a hypothetical spherical megastructure that completely surrounds a star and harnesses all or most of its energy. Now, a new study shows a bizarre light pattern coming from a distant star, and researchers are actually investigating the possibility that it may be the result of a real-life Dyson sphere built by an advanced alien civilization.

The star, called KIC 8462852, experiences dips in its brightness, which is nothing unusual on its own. The Kepler Space Telescope has found thousands of exoplanets by observing their transits across neighboring stars, which causes their brightness to dim briefly. However, the dips are too extreme and too erratic to be the result of run-of-the-mill transiting exoplanets. A transit usually causes a star's brightness to dim by less than one percent, and on a periodic basis, as the exoplanet orbits the star regularly. But this star has experienced huge dips in brightness, up to 22%, which simply could not be the result of a planet, and it doesn't seem to be occurring on any kind of cyclical basis. 

There are several explanations that are somewhat plausible, but none are perfect. It would make sense if there were some kind of massive planetary collision in the recent past that caused huge chunks of debris to surround the star, causing transits with no apparent rhyme or reason. But we would expect the dust created in a huge collision to emit excess infrared light, which hasn't been observed in the area surrounding the star. The best explanation is a series of comets circling the star, but even then it's difficult to explain such a huge blockage of light.

As a result, lead author Tabetha Boyajian went looking for other explanations, and consulted on the findings with Jason Wright, an astronomer who specializes in searching for signatures of alien civilizations. According to Wright, a Dyson sphere constructed by an advanced alien civilization would be consistent with the findings. Most plausible conceptions of a Dyson sphere consist of hundreds of thousands of solar panels orbiting the star rather than one huge structure, so it's possible that an alien civilization living on a nearby planet is in the middle of building one. If part of the star is surrounded by oddly-shaped panels at any one time, then their orbit could cause these erratic dimming patterns.

Wright and Boyajian are now proposing to search for radio signals emitted around the star, as this alien civilization would be advanced enough to emit radio waves that would be detectable from 1500 light years away. This explanation is probably highly unlikely, as even Wright admits that we should "approach it skeptically." But it is an undeniably strange astronomical phenomenon, so there may be an equally strange explanation, and it's worth investigating. 

Via Slate.
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Astrobiology
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