Or how a somewhat mundane scientific light flux analysis by Yale researcher T. S. Boyajian gets picked up by media and blown out of proportion . . . or not.
Let’s back up a minute and boil it down to understandable terms.
The star in question is KIC 8462852, a rather boring, mature main sequence F3 star that’s approximately 1500 light years away. The light we’re observing today left KIC 8462852 around the time the dregs of the Roman Empire were being swept away by the winds of history (~500 AD). During a four year period the Kepler space observatory gathered data on the amount of light flux emanating from the star. It’s a common method for astronomers to identify if a star has orbiting exoplanets. If a star’s measured light flux waxes and wanes, especially at regular intervals, it’s a signature that some object is moving between the light source and observatory. In almost all cases this indicates a planet orbiting the star.
KIC 8462852 is an exception. Astronomers (professional and amateur) have been looking at its light flux data and scratching their heads in exasperation, for they’ve never observed any naturally occurring behavior like this. The scientists have already ruled out measurement errors or anomalies. Other theories included asteroid belt pileup, planetary impact, and swarms of comets being sucked in by the star. None of which really explain, from the experience of the scientists, what’s being observed. The flux signatures indicate that a lot of strange and large things are orbiting the star.
~Tabetha Boyajian, Yale University
So, when one can’t come up with an explanation for space based phenomenon, we naturally fall back to . . .
A new theory has emerged. One that’s incredibly implausible, but feeds our tinfoil hat culture: Alien megastructures must be orbiting the star. Enormous solar collectors, a Dyson sphere (or Dyson swarm), anything your imagination can come up with . . . as long as aliens.
I admit, it appeals to my geeky side and such a discovery would be amazing in a world shattering kind of way. The original author of the paper is now working with SETI to secure radio dish time to point at the star and see what it has to say in the radio spectrum in order to augment the visual spectrum data. If all goes well they should have ears on KIC 8462852 by early 2016, then we will know if there are Death Stars orbiting other stars, or if it’s just another undiscovered natural phenomenon that astrophysicists need to quantify.
Until then you can read the full article over at The Atlantic.