SPACE

Aliens May Be Manipulating A Distant Star, Legit Science Says

Last year's odd report of a distant star that flickers as though controlled by an alien megastructure just got a bit more real

SPACE
Illustration: Diana Quach
Aug 11, 2016 at 1:54 PM ET

A distant star, known as KIC 8462852, is flickering in the night sky. To the uninitiated, that might seem like what any healthy star should be doing—twinkling and whatnot—but astronomers have declared that this particular cycle of flickering and dimming cannot be explained by any known natural phenomenon. Absent a compelling explanation, the internet (with the blessing of some heavy hitting astronomers) has concluded that aliens built a megastructure to drain the star.

Since then we have seen a host of follow-up studies, none of which have found evidence of alien activity. But now, a team of researchers has released a pre-publication analysis of their 1,600-day observation of the rogue star, and they’ve discovered something even stranger than aliens. KIC 8462852 isn’t just flickering—it’s taking the equivalent of a stellar dive into oblivion. “The part that really surprised me was just how rapid and non-linear it was,” coauthor Ben Montet of Caltech told Gizmodo. “We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn’t real.”

“We just weren’t able to.”

More Scientists Finally Tell Us When Aliens Will Call

This isn’t the first time that KIC 8462852 has baffled astronomers. One paper last year discovered that the rogue star had dimmed by about 19 percent over the past century, but those results have since been discredited. This new study suggests an even more radical dimming—representing a 3 percent decline in just four years—which is about twice as fast as prior estimates. For the first 1,000 days of the study, the star dimmed only slightly (by about 0.34 percent per year). But over the next 200 days, the star’s dimming picked up pace, and dropped off by more than 2 percent. When the dust settled, the four year period had left the star 3 percent dimmer than it started.

Fortunately, scientists are already planning a follow-up study, which will involve pointing the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network at KIC 8462852 for a longer stretch of time. One of the goals of the new research is to get to the bottom of this mystery. “We don’t have any really good models for this sort of behavior,” Jason Wright of Penn State told Gizmodo. “That’s exciting!”

So far, the most reasonable explanation for the odd dimming patterns is that the star is occasionally blocked by a bunch of comet fragments, or that it is spinning so rapidly that it is changing shape and, due to a process called gravity darkening, giving off funky readings. But astronomers cannot rule out something a little less rational and a bit more Armageddon. Just ask Jason Wright, who has written an entire scientific paper on the possibility that an alien civilization built a Dyson swarm of solar panels to drain the star, presumably to power some petty aspect of their superior lifestyles.

Regardless, here on Earth—two thousand lightyears away from the comet fragments, spinning anomalies, and swarming solar panels that are torturing our finest minds—astronomers are pointing their lenses skyward in an attempt to solve the next great stellar mystery. If the hullabaloo is due to a bad reading, we’ll discover the truth soon through rigorous follow-up studies.

But if it is an alien megastructure—don’t say we didn’t warn you.