The Kepler Space Telescope was designed to detect tiny dips in the light emitted by stars that it imaged for the four years it was in service. It collected data on over 150,000 stars in that period, and one of those stars stood out as “bizarre” and “interesting” as reported by the “Planet Hunters” citizen scientists who had volunteered to help with classification of all those stars that Kepler was staring at.
The Kepler team enlisted citizen scientists because although they had sophisticated computer algorithms to analyze the data, the volume of data was so vast, and the human mind is so good at pattern recognition, that it turned out that crowd sourcing the analysis really made sense.
An astounding article published on The Atlantic website describes what those citizen scientists saw when looking at the star known as KIC 8462852:
The star was emitting a light pattern that looked stranger than any of the others Kepler was watching.
The light pattern suggests there is a big mess of matter circling the star, in tight formation. That would be expected if the star were young. When our solar system first formed, four and a half billion years ago, a messy disk of dust and debris surrounded the sun, before gravity organized it into planets, and rings of rock and ice.
But this unusual star isn’t young. If it were young, it would be surrounded by dust that would give off extra infrared light. There doesn’t seem to be an excess of infrared light around this star.
It appears to be mature.
And yet, there is this mess of objects circling it. A mess big enough to block a substantial number of photons that would have otherwise beamed into the tube of the Kepler Space Telescope. If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now. Gravity would have consolidated it, or it would have been sucked into the star and swallowed, after a brief fiery splash.
The team analyzed a myriad of scenarios that might explain the observations, but all of the explanations based on natural phenomena came up short except one. The article continues:
If another star had passed through the unusual star’s system, it could have yanked a sea of comets inward. Provided there were enough of them, the comets could have made the dimming pattern.
But that would be an extraordinary coincidence, if that happened so recently, only a few millennia before humans developed the tech to loft a telescope into space. That’s a narrow band of time, cosmically speaking.
And yet, the explanation has to be rare or coincidental. After all, this light pattern doesn’t show up anywhere else, across 150,000 stars. We know that something strange is going on out there.
In the paper that Tabetha Boyajian, the postdoc researcher that oversees the Planet Hunters project, published recently, the “comet yanking” scenario is the one that they settled on as the most likely, while saying that more research is necessary.
Astronomer Jason Wright, from Penn State University has another theory, keep reading to explore his alternate explanation with us…