Time to contemplate the cosmos…
All right. I know that, by now, much good ink (real and cyber) has been spilled over KIC 8462852. I also know that I’m probably not the very last science writer to turn our attention towards this strange star, drudged up in the Kepler Space Telescope data. And things have only gotten stranger, as search back through glass-plate archives has revealed that KIC 8462852 has gotten continuously fainter over the past century.
What’s going on here? Why won’t this F-type star behave? Doesn’t it know its place on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram and the Main Sequence?
What we know so far: KIC 8462852 is an 11th magnitude star located 1,480 light years distant in the constellation Cygnus. You can see it from your backyard with a decent-sized telescope. The current leading theory for the anomalous light curve displayed by Tabby’s Star is a swarm of comets breaking up along our line of sight. That’s quite a massive swarm if true, as we rarely see such beasties from the Oort Cloud behave this way in our own solar system, at least in our current epoch.
Of course, another candidate tossed out there around ye ole web is an alien civilization, currently constructing a Dyson Sphere or a Dyson Swarm to harvest energy from its host star. The good folks at SETI have scanned KIC 8462852 for signals and turned up naught.
Is anyone else slightly unsettled by the very thought of an awesomely advanced civilization, just 1400 odd light years away? Would they give a second thought to ‘taking out a construction contract’ on our own solar system, if needed?
As far-fetched as it is, there would be some interesting and thus far ignored implications to the possibility of an alien mega-structure around Tabby’s Star. First, the Kepler Space Telescope that found the strange light curve only stares at a selected patch of the sky along the galactic plane in the constellations of Lyra, Cygnus and Hercules. To make such a lucky find out of the gate could mean that Dyson-swarm building civilizations are relatively common. This, in turn, could give us hope for our own future, by showing us that projects on such a massive scale are possible and are occasionally undertaken by civilizations who stick around on the cosmic scene for a while.
On the down side, I wonder if the age of Tabby’s Star would make it ripe for such a project. Why go through the bother of encapsulating such a star, if it only runs dry in a few hundred million years? Maybe the engineers evolved around an as yet unseen Red Dwarf companion star, and KIC 8462852 was simply what was available. On the down side, this might tell us that interstellar travel is simply impossible, as civilizations — no matter how ancient — are doomed to stay trapped in their home systems.
And, we’ve been here before. Way back in the 1950s, another variable star, Epsilon Aurigae, failed to behave. It’s worth noting that, in the pre-internet era, the ‘aliens’ meme wasn’t trotted out immediately as it was in the case of Tabby’s Star today. We now know that Epsilon Aurigae has a companion star enshrouded in a vast gas and dust torus, causing it to fade out for around 700 days about every 27 years.
Strange stuff to ponder, in a strange universe.