The Search for an Extraterrestrial Dyson Sphere Has Begun

Wednesday, 21 October 2015 - 11:34AM
Astronomy
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Wednesday, 21 October 2015 - 11:34AM
The Search for an Extraterrestrial Dyson Sphere Has Begun
Recently, a newly discovered star kicked up a media storm when astronomers detected bizarre brightness patterns that some astrobiologists claimed could be the result of an extraterrestrial Dyson sphere. Many dismissed the theory, calling it far-fetched and criticizing the internet for seizing upon a sensational story, as per usual. But the fact of the matter is, the theory is scientifically plausible, and astronomers are now actively investigating it.

A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical spherical megastructure that completely surrounds a star and harnesses all or most of its energy. Most plausible conceptions of a Dyson sphere consist of hundreds of thousands of solar panels orbiting the star rather than one huge structure, and the strange, erratic dimming patterns of the star were consistent with an unfinished or in-progress alien megastructure made of a giant assortment of solar panels.

Although astronomers admit that the possibility is remote that this is the case, the patterns aren't 100% consistent with any other explanation. It's possible that the patterns are caused by phenomena such as a massive planetary collision or a series of comets surrounding the star, but neither of these explanations account for absolutely everything. Now, SETI astronomers are actively looking into the possibility that an advanced civilization built (or began building) a huge structure around the star.

"We are looking at it with the Allen Telescope Array," SETI director Seth Shostak told Space.com. The Allen Telescope Array is an array of 300 300 radio dishes in San Francisco that is specifically designed to search for alien intelligence, and has the capability to observe signals coming from this particular star, which is 1,500 light years away.

Shostak went on to say that they're "for sure" looking into the alien explanation, although he cautions that the public should "moderate their enthusiasm with the lessons of history." In the past, humans have interpreted plenty of quotidian extraterrestrial phenomena for alien intelligence; for example, when the first pulsar signals were discovered, astronomers had no plausible explanation, so they speculated that they were alien transmissions. 

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"So history suggests we're going to find an explanation for this that doesn't involve Klingons, if you will," Shostak said.
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So the alien civilization theory is still being considered, but it shouldn't necessarily be our default explanation simply because we don't have a better one yet. But that begin said, Shostak went on to say that even if this star doesn't point us to an alien civilization, there likely is one elsewhere in the universe, and SETI will be chasing down many other leads over the coming years.

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"It almost doesn't matter where you point your telescope, because there are planets everywhere," Shostak said. "If there's somebody out there, there are going to be so many of them out there that I do think there's a chance."
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