KIC 8462852, often hailed as the weirdest star in our galaxy, is causing quite a stir, not for the first time. Also known as ‘Tabby’s star’ and ‘Boyajian’s star’, due to Tabetha Boyajian’s work analysing it, this star is located 1,400 light years away. Though distant, KIC 8462852 has been on astronomers’ radar since 2011, for a remarkable reason. Something appears to be orbiting KIC 8462852, and it doesn’t look like or behave like a planet or any identified natural object. The effects of this mystery orbiter are once again showing themselves at this moment and the possible significance could be staggering.
Tabby’s star was noticed as a result of the Kepler space telescope’s mission to scan to planets in just one region of our galaxy. Out of over 150,000 stars analysed over fours years, only a small number showed a dip in their light, suggesting that a planet in orbit passed between the stars and Kepler. Of all of these, only KIC 8462852 seems to have astronomer’s debating with such urgency.
While every planet blocks out some amount of light from the star it orbits, KIC 8462852 doesn’t quite match the norm. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, would block out about 1% of the sun’s light, from Kepler’s perspective. Earth would block out far less than this. Whatever seems to be orbiting KIC 8462852 has been known to block between 3 and 30% of its light, meaning it would have to be positively enormous, even by planetary standards. The light of KIC 8462852 is also blocked for far longer by this mysterious object than is normally encountered. Most orbiting bodies only obscure their stars’ light for a matter of hours. KIC 8462852 has been known to be obscured for weeks at a time. That’s not the weirdest part though. The light-blockage often disappears much quicker than it appears, meaning that whatever is floating around up there doesn’t have a symmetrical form. It isn’t round. It isn’t a planet.
As recently as May 19th, KIC 8462852’s odd dimming has started up once more. While the timeframe is in line with predictions for an object in orbit, it’s nonetheless exciting for astronomers. Tabetha Boyajian and several of her fellow astronomers are determined to get to the bottom of what could be causing this incredibly bizarre event. Many enthusiasts promote the idea that an alien structure has to be the cause of the anomaly, with the most popular theory being a massive solar-siphoning machine. Tabetha, however, is in no hurry to jump to conclusions. In a TED talk on the subject, she begins with the Carl Sagan quote “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and believes that, in science, a theory of alien intervention should be a last resort. Other theories involve a vast “swarm” of comets orbiting the sun, though Tabetha finds it unlikely that the required number of thousands of coinciding comets would occur. There’s also something strange in that whatever the object is, it isn’t giving off any of the signs of heat that would be expected of something so large and so close to a star.
Tabby’s star and the object(s) orbiting it, give rise to countless questions. Is this the clinching evidence for life outside our planet? Right now, even the brightest minds can only speculate. Whatever it may be, alien in design or natural in occurrence, it stands to change a great deal of what we know about space.