KIC 8462852 -- the name captured the public’s imagination last week after it was dubbed “the most mysterious star in our galaxy” in an article published in the Atlantic. The report, which included interviews with a team of researchers that observed the star -- located between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra -- for four years, detailed intriguing findings, including one that indicated the presence of unexplained clumps of matter circling it.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral student at Yale University who co-authored a paper describing the findings, told the Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
Later in the article, another astronomer describes a swarm of objects around the star as “something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
Now, a week later, research into what has since been dubbed an “alien megastructure” has begun in earnest.
“We are looking at it with the Allen Telescope Array,” Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, told Space.com Monday. However, addressing the excitement that the discovery has stirred, he urged a bit more calm and clearheaded approach.
“[People] should perhaps moderate their enthusiasm with the lessons of history,” he said. “History suggests we're going to find an explanation for this that doesn't involve Klingons, if you will.”
For instance, when pulsars -- which are rotating neutron stars -- were first discovered in the 1960s, they aroused quite a bit of excitement within the scientific community, which perceived the electromagnetic pulses emitted by the objects as an extraterrestrial civilization’s attempt to communicate with humans.
There are, in fact, quite a few natural scenarios that might explain -- to certain a degree -- the presence of debris around the star, without invoking the as-yet-far-fetched idea of technologically advanced aliens capable of surrounding their parent star with gigantic energy-absorbing panels. However, the explanations, which range from defects with the Kepler space telescope, an asteroid pile-up or an impact that created a sea of comet debris, fail to explain the dimming of up to 20 percent of the light of the star observed by the researchers during their four-year study.
Meanwhile, it could, of course, simply be aliens. However, with the available data, the explanation remains far-fetched.
“The mysterious star, KIC 8462852, does have an odd light curve,” Steve Howell, a member of the Kepler space telescope’s planet-hunting mission, told Agence France-Presse. “It does not look like a normal exoplanet or binary star light curve. However, I think that saying that it immediately is alien is a bit of a stretch.”