Are We About To Find Our Extraterrestrial Neighbors?
Our extraterrestrial neighbors may not be exactly right around the corner, but some believe we might have actually found them. Somewhere between the constellations Cyrus the Swan and Lyra lies a very unusual star that has captured the attention of scientists.
Back in 2009, the Kepler Telescope was looking for tiny dips in the light emitted by this star and others. These dips are often shadows cast by transiting planets. In particular when they repeat as if they were caused by orbiting objects. Kepler collected so much data on this and others that it couldn’t process it all with algorithms so the astronomer’s requested help from a group of “citizen scientists” known as the Planet Hunters.
In 2011, the Planet Hunters flagged this star as being “interesting” or “bizarre”. In other words, it was emitting a pattern that was stranger than any of the others that Kepler was watching. The pattern suggests there is a big mess of matter circling the star in a tight formation. If the star were young, it might make sense, but this isn’t the case. So now the theories as to what it might be are being explored.
Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale wrote, “We’ve never seen anything like this star. It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.” Boyajian published a paper exploring many natural scenarios such as instrument defects and shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup.
However, Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. From the Atlantic:
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.” Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures.”
So what’s next, Boyajian is now working with Wright and Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. They want to point a radio dish at the star to see if it emits radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity. If that is successful, they’ll follow up with the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which could determine whether the radio waves were emitted by a technological source, like those that come from the Earth’s network of radio stations.
The first step is scheduled for January with the follow up next fall, or sooner if things go really well. “If we saw something exciting, we could ask the director for special allotted time on the VLA,” Wright told the Atlantic. “And in that case, we’d be asking to go on right away.”
If that happens, then I think we found E.T.