Dimming star not caused by aliens, but still a mystery

NASA           Tabby's Star

Hypotheses ranged from a swarm of comets orbiting the star, to a dusty debris disk surrounding a black hole between the star and Earth, to material within our own solar system, stellar fluctuations in Tabby's Star, and finally, alien megastructures.

Artist's concept of a hypothetical uneven ring of dust causing the mysterious dimming of the star KIC 8462852, also known as Boyajian's Star or Tabby's Star.

Previous speculation about the freakish Tabby's star wondered whether there was some sort of extraterrestrial interference, but it turns out that the dimming of the star may (much more boringly) be a case of space dust. It's still unclear what is causing all this dust and whether or not the dust is orbiting the star or if it's coming from somewhere else.

The project began after a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $100,000 to find an answer, allowing a dedicated ground-based telescope time to observe and gather more data on the star through a network of telescopes around the world.

Scientists closely observed the star through the Las Cumbres Observatory from March 2016 to December 2017.

"The current evidence suggests that the short-term and long-term dimming are caused by dust of different sizes", they write.

While scientists searched for a reasonable explanation to the original findings, some considered the possibility of an alien megastructure similar to that first proposed by physicist Freeman Dyson in the 1960s. But thanks to observations made by the Kepler Space Telescope from 2009 to 2013, we know that this otherwise normal star experiences sporadic and intermittent dimming (at least from our vantage point on Earth).

A study lead by Tabetha Boyajian - the astronomer who Tabby's Star is named after - has found that the unusual dimming is most likely caused by dust. "If you have something that is completely opaque like a planet, you would expect all the colors of the light to be blocked out at the same levels". "Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure".

KIC 8462852 is nicknamed "Tabby's Star" after Boyajian, who discovered it with the help of citizen scientists. Beginning in May 2017, astronomers managed to chronicle four distinct dimming episodes, dubbed Elsie, Celeste, Scara Brae, and Angkor by Kickstarter supporters who got to nominate and vote for the names.

The new study was published online today (Jan. 3) in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "Weird stars that have dust coming from somewhere isn't as much of a headline grabber", Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University and one of the 200 authors on the paper, tells The Verge.

"If it wasn't for people with an unbiased look on our universe, this unusual star would have been overlooked", Boyajian added.

Astronomers even pointed one of the planet's most sensitive radio telescopes at the star, hoping to hear murmurs from a civilization intelligent enough to craft structures so large they sometimes block a substantial portion of the star's light. But unlike the small, orderly brightness dips caused by exoplanets, the KIC 8462852 data was much stranger. Morris said he "pleaded" with those scheduled to use the telescope that late that night to get a few minutes of observing time.

"We don't really have a working model quite yet, so things are still up in the air in terms of how everything is put together", Boyajian said.

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