Light & Verity

Aliens? Probably not. But...

An astronomical anomaly leads to creative thinking.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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When Yale astronomy postdoc Tabetha Boyajian published a paper last fall with the news that a star called KIC 8462852—some 1,400 light years from Earth—undergoes “irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux,” the excitement was largely limited to her academic peers. But when astronomer Jason Wright of Penn State University suggested that this could be evidence of “megastructures” built by aliens? Then the media came running.

Space observers have long entertained the idea that advanced alien civilizations might build orbiting structures to capture energy from a star. Wright thought the unusual pattern of shadows passing in front of KIC 8462852, observed by the Kepler Space Telescope over a four-year period, looked just about right. (Of course, he also said that “aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider.”) Boyajian’s own best guess is a “swarm of comet fragments.” But she and Wright are trying to get some time on a telescope that could detect any radio waves around the star suggesting nonnatural activity. Just in case.

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