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Have Scientists Really Found An "Alien Megastructure" Around A Distant Star?

The leading theory is that the weird light patterns around the star can be explained by a family of comets, but extraterrestrial activity still hasn't been ruled out.

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This telescope has been constantly monitoring the brightness of over 145,000 stars to look for dips in light caused by objects blocking a fraction of the star's light during a transit.

NASA Kepler Mission/Dana Berry / Via youtube.com

This method has led to the discovery of over 1,000 planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way.

Things obviously get more complicated when there are a bunch of different-sized objects in orbit around the same star, but some expert-level math can normally figure out what's going on.

localhorst/reddit / Via giphy.com

With enough data, scientists can tell you things about the mass of the planet(s), the shape and size of their orbit(s), and how close to the star they are.

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But no amount of extreme math, so far, has figured out what is going on with a star named KIC 8462852 in-between the Cygnus and Lyra constellations.

Boyajian et al. 2015 / Via arxiv.org

According to Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian and a team of professional and amateur astronomers, nobody has ever seen a star like this.

The data suggest a mass of objects tightly circling the star. This would be expected if it was a young star in the process of forming planets, but it seems to be a pretty mature star.

Microsoft Studios / Via vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net

As Ross Andersen reported in The Atlantic: "If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now. Gravity would have consolidated it, or it would have been sucked into the star and swallowed, after a brief fiery splash."

Boyajian and her colleagues proposed a number of natural explanations for the weird light patterns, but none of them is a slam dunk.

Some of the possible explanations they investigated included things like instrumentation problems, variability from the output of the star itself, and variability from other light sources around the star.

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But other researchers think something even wilder could be afoot...aliens.

Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State, told The Atlantic that he was in the process of publishing an alternate explanation: "megastructures" created by an advanced alien civilization, perhaps built to capture energy from the star.

"Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider," Wright told The Atlantic, "but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build."

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a research organization, considers the star "a target of opportunity," senior astrophysicist Gerry Harp told BuzzFeed Science.

SETI / Via seti.org

SETI is diverting resources to take a closer look with their Allen Telescope Array, a collection of radio telescopes used to scan space for radio waves that are potentially not caused by natural phenomena.

"We’ve dropped our regular observing priorities and are going to focus on this target in the next week or so and dedicate a lot of resources to ... seeing if there is an artificial signal coming from that direction," Harp said.

"People have natural explanations for what's going on," Harp said. "I would say that those natural explanations are by far the most likely."

NASA/JPL-Caltech / Via en.wikipedia.org

Harp doesn't expect to find evidence of an alien civilization, and argues other explanations proposed in Boyajian's study, including the exocomets idea or a planetary collision similar to the one that created our own moon are more likely.

Mark Showalter, another SETI senior scientist, said it would be great if some of these wild alien-civilization ideas ended up being true, but he is not holding his breath.

In response to some of the theories other researchers have proposed, Showalter told BuzzFeed Science "my romantic wish is that an alien race built an enormous work of art to let the rest of the civilization in the galaxy know we're not alone." But in the end, he continued, "what I really believe is that it will turn out to be a rare but natural formation."

UPDATE

A new paper looking at KIC 8462852 has been published in The Astrophysical Journal. The team who published the paper was led by Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University and used data from the Spitzer telescope to see if they could detect any infrared light coming from the star system. You'd expect to see infrared light if there was warm dust created by rocky collisions in the system.

They didn't see any such infrared light, which means explanations that involve heat-generating collisions can be ruled out. Setting aside alien megastructures, the leading theory now is that the weight light patterns are caused by a family of cold comets on a long, strange orbit around the star.

"This work is only a point in favor of the comet hypothesis in the sense that it's a strike against one set of competing hypotheses," Wright, who was not involved with this new study, told BuzzFeed Science.

"We may not know yet what's going on around this star,” Marengo said in a statement. “But that's what makes it so interesting."

Science Writer, Fossil Beastmaster

Contact Alex Kasprak at alex.kasprak@buzzfeed.com.

Kelly Oakes is science editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Kelly Oakes at kelly.oakes@buzzfeed.com.

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