Astronomers Find An Interesting Mystery (probably not aliens)

Interesting astronomy news breaking today (October 14, 2015):

A star 1,451 light years away from us, catalogued as KIC 8462852, is showing an odd behaviour. Up to 22% of its light disappears for between 5 and 80 days at a time, suggesting that something big is orbiting it.

We’re not talking planet-sized big, we’re talking big-big. For example, Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system, could have that same effect on an observer if the observer was standing on one of our outer planets, like Pluto. Pluto is about 5.5 light *hours* away from our sun. This star is 1,451 light *years* away.

Two possibilities:

  1. There is something, perhaps an interstellar dust cloud or a “rogue” planet – one that has been ejected by its star system – between us and that star, that is interfering with our view of the star;
  2. There is something huge – bigger in at least two dimensions than the star itself – orbiting that star. Astronomers have already ruled out a dust cloud caused by planetary formation as :
  • a) the star is old and planetary formation occurs early in a star’s life, and
  • b) such a cloud would show up as excessive infrared light, which this doesn’t.

The article in The Atlantic contains a link to the research paper if you really want to delve into it, or you could join the rest of the internet in speculating that it might be a ringworld, or the ongoing construction of a ringworld, or an incomplete Dyson Sphere, or a complete Dyson Sphere with holes punched in it (apparently called a mobious sphere), or…

Start by reading the article in the Altantic or watch this video from the editor of Universe Today magazine.

Then, if you have an interest, read the astronomical paper it’s based on. While you’re at it, read this second article at the Atlantic about how a “we’ve discovered aliens!” false alarm happened in the 1990s, and how it shouldn’t happen again.

UPDATE: For a more scientific perspective from a real astronomer, try Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy article, complete with charts. For a bit less scientific and more guarded interpretation, read this article a Space.com.

UPDATE 2 (Jan 19/2016): It gets weirder. The star has been fading, pretty consistently, for over acentury. An astronomer went through archived photos and compared luminosity, and it is distinct (and by galactic standards, rapid). Again, Phil Plait has a good discussion of the topic here.