A seemingly ordinary star has become one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy thanks to baffling Kepler data, and measurements indicating that the star has been gradually fading over the last 100 years.
The extremely unusual data is specific to the star, known as KIC 8462852, and isn’t consistent with any known astronomical phenomena. Explanations for its weird behavior range from a flurry of comets, to gravity darkening, to, most interestingly, an alien megastructure.
KIC 8462852 was propelled to fame last fall when Penn State astronomer Jason Wright nonchalantly suggested that the star might be surrounded by an alien megastructure. The theorized Dyson sphere comes to mind. The prospect that we are actually seeing an advanced alien innovation dimming light is as unlikely as ever, but it hasn’t been ruled out.
Last week, the mystery deepened when astronomers discovered that over the last century, KIC 8462852’s light output has decreased about 19 percent. The long term data tells the story of a star that’s not just sputtering, but slowly fading out entirely.
Astronomers said that seeing the star fade nearly 20 percent over the last century was “more than just startling.”
“There is zero precedent for any main sequence star to vary in brightness like this,” said astronomer Bradley Schaefer from Louisiana State University.
Researchers are admittedly baffled but stress caution when it come to the alien megastructure theory. Whatever is blocking the star isn’t emitting strongly in the infrared spectrum, meaning it isn’t very warm and likely not very close to the Sun. So an encompassing Dyson sphere-type structure doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility.
Subsequently, something is happening within the vicinity of the star that scientists do not understand, perhaps an undiscovered astronomical phenomena, and astronomers are excited to get to the bottom of it.
“If we could catch it in the act of dimming again, that would really help,” said Wright.
For the next five months KIC 8462852 is behind the Sun and only visible during the daytime making observations from Earth impossible. Astronomers are using this time to prepare a game-plan for when the star becomes visible again in a few months.
“When the dipping begins again, we will be prepared to hit it with everything we have,” said Yale astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, who discovered the star.
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