The recent developments in exoplanet research has led to the discovery of hundreds of planets in distant star systems. When this area of research first arose, astronomers believed they would only find exoplanets numbering in the dozens in other star systems. One of these in particular has captured the imagination of the public. This is because it has stymied scientists’ efforts to explain it – leading to public speculation of an alien “megastructure.”
Within the Cygnus and Lyrae constellations, researchers have discovered something that they simply don’t understand – this lack of clarity comes from mysterious dips in data from star KIC 8462852.
Researchers working on the Planet Hunters project used this method to find exoplanets, but ended up discovering an anomaly in their data between the Cygnus and Lyrae constellations on star KIC 8462852.
One of the methods used to find exoplanets is called the transit method. Astronomers wait for the object to move across a star and then they measure the luminosity of the star over a period of time. When the object transits the star there would be a dip in the amount of brightness, and this would let astronomers know that a planet or object is orbiting that star.
Normally, exoplanets show a repeatable and somewhat predictable dip pattern using the transit method which corresponds with their orbit around the star.
In the case of KIC 8462852 however, the luminosity dips are periodic and cause the star to dim by 22 percent which is a significant drop for a transiting object. These facts are quite irregular for an average orbiting planet which led these astronomers to hypothesize what could have caused this anomaly.
As noted by Bob King on Universe Today, the first theory concluded that a collision between two planets occurred which could have generated a gigantic dust cloud. Essentially, this would explain the diminished luminosity of KIC 8462852. However, this theory failed because dust glows in infrared light from starlight and the data does not exhibit an unusually high amount of infrared light for this star type.
The second theory was that a comet broke apart into even smaller comets. This event can easily occur when a comet passes close by a star and it is torn apart by the star’s powerful gravity.
The final and most interesting theory is that there is not a natural cause for the anomaly. If extraterrestrial life does exist, it could be possible that this irregular transiting object could be some “alien megastructure”. However, most astronomers believe this hypothesis should be a last resort for an explanation. As research in exoplanets expands, researches might find similar anomalies in other star systems to further explain the mysterious transiting object.
What should perhaps be given greater weight is that for all the discoveries science has made over the past few decades the amount that we don’t know is, for want of a better word, astronomical. The irregular dips in the light could be caused by any number of celestial processes that science is, at present, unaware of. While it might be interesting to speculate that Kepler has found a “Death Star” – it is far more likely that Kepler has discovered something that science just doesn’t have a word for – yet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amoree Hodges is a SpaceFlight Insider Launch Correspondence volunteer who hails from the Florida Institute of Technology, where she is currently working to obtain her Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Amoree loves telescopes and all things that are related to space, and NASA.
Hodges is planning on a career in public science communications, and will be using her internship with SpaceFlight Insider to gain greater science and engineering communications experience while she works on completing her studies.