This is the stuff space junkies live for. In 2009, NASA actually spent its money correctly and launched the Kelper Space Telescope. The main purpose of the is observatory was to scan a certain part of the Milky Way Galaxy (that’s the one where we live) and look for planets. Any old planet would do. Really.
As it happens, with the actual mission of NASA being reappropriated for stirring up racial disharmony, the space nuts have had to band together and watch the heavens as a collective. It seems that the information being sent back from Kepler was so immense and complicated, the computers couldn’t process it. They needed humans to actually look at the stars and figure out if there was anything “weird” showing up. So, in a fabulous cooperative working arrangement with private sector sorts, a website called Planet Hunters was set up where “citizen scientists” or space junkies at the university level could sign up and give them a hand with human eyes finding the “weird” stuff.
That move paid off. As it happens, between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra is an older star that has space stuff circling it. The Atlantic broke the story:
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” says Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
Kepler was looking for tiny dips in the light emitted by this star. Indeed, it was looking for these dips in more than 150,000 stars, simultaneously, because these dips are often shadows cast by transiting planets. Especially when they repeat, periodically, as you’d expect if they were caused by orbiting objects….
In 2011, several citizen scientists flagged one particular star as “interesting” and “bizarre.” The star was emitting a light pattern that looked stranger than any of the others Kepler was watching.
The light pattern suggests there is a big mess of matter circling the star, in tight formation. That would be expected if the star were young. When our solar system first formed, four and a half billion years ago, a messy disk of dust and debris surrounded the sun, before gravity organized it into planets, and rings of rock and ice.
So…is this mysterious star, the one with objects circling it, another sun like ours that is the center of a solar system? That’s the question sitting before the citizen scientists. There are several possibilities. One is comet related and that a group passed to close to the star. Another is an asteroid crash. And the last resort, but the one that is the basis of a proposal for further cooperation with the big dishes and telescopes on earth: aliens.
Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
Could it be that we really aren’t alone in the universe? Maybe we are about to find out.