The Mystery Surrounding That 'Alien Megastructure' Star Has Finally Been Solved
It's long been called "the most mysterious star in the universe," but we may finally understand once and for all whether this bizarre flickering star is an alien megastructure or something far more benign.
We've been keeping our eye on the star KIC 8462852, also known as "Tabby's Star," for a while now. So has Stephen Hawking's Breakthrough Listen project and, more recently, about 200 researchers, including scientists from Penn State and Louisiana State University.
Their conclusion? The star's mysterious dimming isn't caused by an alien megastructure, as many have hoped—it's probably a cloud of dust.
Louisiana State faculty member Tabetha Boyajian (for whom the star is nicknamed) and other scientists looked carefully at the sudden dips in brightness coming from the star, which were initially hypothesized to be caused by comets, clouds, or other space debris. When the data made those theories look unlikely, the conversation turned to alternative explanations, including a swarm of alien robots building something like a Dyson sphere, a giant structure meant to enclose a star and harvest its energy by absorbing the light and heat coming from it. The idea captured the imagination of thousands of people, and KIC 8462852 became known as "the most mysterious star in the galaxy."
Now, however, the mystery may be over. According to Boyajian, who has become the public face of the investigation: "Dust is most likely the reason why the star's light appears to dim and brighten. The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure."
The discovery of KIC 8462852's strange dimming pattern was initially discovered not by professional astronomers, but by volunteer civilians sifting through piles of data collected by the Kepler telescope.
Likewise, much of the support for the star's investigation came from the public, which donated over $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign called "Find the Flux."
Though the truth may not be as life-changing as an alien Dyson sphere, Boyajian has been blown away by the interest and dedication surrounding the project: "It's exciting. I am so appreciative of all of the people who have contributed to this in the past year—the citizen scientists and professional astronomers. It's quite humbling to have all of these people contributing in various ways to help figure it out."