Invisible to the eye and tucked 1480 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation is a yellow-white star just slightly brighter than our sun named KIC-8462852. The star is colloquially named “Tabby’s Star” after American astronomer Tabetha S. Boyajian, whose September 2015 paper, “Where’s the Flux?” investigated the celestial body’s abnormal light behavior and gave it its second nickname–the WTF Star. The light it emits irregularly dims by as much as twenty percent over periods of 5 to 80 days, a pattern that was discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which is used to detect potentially habitable planets that orbit a star outside the solar system. Scientists have offered a variety of explanations for this mysterious phenomenon, and some of which are more extraordinary than others.
The first, simplest, and most historically relevant explanation suggests that the obstruction is composed of comet or planetary debris that has been drawn into KIC-8462852’s orbit. These fragments would likely have originated from a single break-up event of a rocky body and would now be orbiting the star in a highly irregular orbit. Boyajian suggests that this could be the most plausible explanation for the WTF Star’s light curves, even more so than the possibility that it could be a young star still in the midst of the material it was formed from. If the light irregularities were to be explained by a swarm of comets in a highly elliptical orbit, the percentage of light being dimmed would likely be caused by upwards of thousands, or even tens of thousands of comets, drawing this theory into question due to the sheer number of rocky fragments that would have to be involved. While the comet debris conclusion is the most readily accepted due to scientific evidence and historical background, it does not account for the fact that the obstruction could be from unnatural causes.
The second, and perhaps most intriguing, reasoning behind the WTF Star’s bizarre light emittance rests in extraterrestrial territory. While scientists have yet to actually find proof of alien life forms on other planets, many are hopeful that KIC-8462852 will defy the odds and reveal a civilization that would likely be even more advanced than Earth’s.
Civilization can currently be classed into three different “levels,” as ordered by Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev. Level I constitutes a civilization that has only just barely breached harnessing the energy of its nearby star; however, this classification would also signify that a society could govern all of the planet’s natural occurrences; volcanoes, earthquakes, and even the weather would be under their control. Planet Earth has not yet obtained this classification, as it would have to increase its energy production by about 100,000 times before it could be considered a Level I civilization. Despite the fact that intermediate levels were not accounted for by Kardashev, Earth’s energy consumption as of 2012 gives it an approximate civilization classification of Level 0.724, but theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku believes that we could attain Level I in the next 100-200 years. Level II denotes a society that has complete control over its host star, which could be done through the use of theoretical “Dyson swarms” or “Dyson spheres,” which are essentially groups of solar panels that would encase a star in order to harness all or most of its energy in order to transfer it back to the civilization’s planet. The colossal size of a Dyson megastructure is out of perspective for Earth-dwellers, but the easiest way to visualize it is to note that even the smallest individual structure within the swarm would be at least 100 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon, which is about a quarter of a million miles.
Scientists have hypothesized that Tabby’s Star’s abnormal behavior could be explained by the orbit of a Dyson-esque megastructure constructed by a Level II-equivalent civilization. The investigation into the possibility of life forms harnessing the power of KIC-8462852 has been undertaken by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a California-based private and nonprofit organization comprised of citizen scientists like Tabetha Boyajian. To carry out this investigation, SETI has been using the Allen Telescope Array, a grouping of 42 small satellite dishes, to scan for transmissions coming from KIC-8462852. Thus far, the effort has not been successful in detecting artificial frequencies, but the investigation is ongoing with the addition of a search for powerful laser pulses, which could be transmitted by a highly advanced civilization. SETI’s Senior Astronomer Dr. Seth Shostak put it best in saying, “On the basis of historical precedent, it’s most likely that the the dimming of KIC 8462852 is due to natural causes. But in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, any suggestive clues should, of course, be further investigated – and that is what the SETI Institute is now doing.”
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Watch Tabetha Boyajian’s TED talk about KIC-8462852 here.
Featured image courtesy of NASA/JPL-CALTECH.