KEPLER TELESCOPE: Mysterious objects spotted orbiting distant star

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VIJAY SHAH via Al-Jazeera America

Astronomers and other scientists observing distant stars using the Kepler telescope have found themselves in a bit of a conundrum after spotting the presence of mysterious objects of immense size orbiting a distant star over 1,500 light years from Earth, Al-Jazeera have reported. Some observers have rumoured the objects to be signs of a super-intelligent and ancient alien civilisation, while others have said that it could be little more than orbiting space debris such as comets or captured asteroid fragments.

The Kepler space telescope, managed by American space agency NASA detected an unusual dimming pattern in the light emitted from a star tagged KIC 8462852, which lies within our Milky Way between the constellations of Lyre and Cygnus.

The first five planets discovered by Kepler, c...
The first five planets discovered by Kepler, compared by relative size. Kepler-8b is depicted in orange. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jason Wright, a university researcher allied with Pennsylvania State University in the United States, discovered the anomaly while searching for planets that are similar to Earth and may be capable of sustaining life. He believes the dimming of KIC 8462852 may not be due to the more usual presence of orbiting planets, but may be in fact be ‘alien megastructures’, constructed by an extraterrestrial civilisation for purposes unknown. Wright plans to publish his findings and theory of these alleged ‘megastructures’ in a scientific paper due this year. Wright will claim that the star is being orbitted by a ‘swarm’ of these megastructures, which may for the purposes of gathering solar energy from the old and dim star. Due to the star’s distance from Earth, the dimming of its light by the ‘megastructures’ has only be observable here after that light left KIC 8462852 more than 1,500 years ago, which means the objects were orbiting the star during the 6th century CE.

The original data from Kepler, which was built by NASA to detect exoplanets, planets beyond our Solar System, was analysed by Wright’s fellow researcher Tabetha Boyajian, a scientist and postgraduate at Yale University. Boyajian examined KIC 8462852 in careful detail before sharing her findings with Wright.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Boyajian told The Atlantic magazine. “It was really weird. We thought it might be a bad data … but everything checked out.”

Boyajian has also written an academic paper exploring the strange phenomenon of KIC 8462852 recently. Unlike Wright’s alien hypothesis, Boyajian’s paper attempted to propose natural explanations for the objects, which were found by analysing the dip in light from the star as the objects passed in front of it. Apart from possible misreadings of the data or defects with Kepler, Boyajian also accounts for possible floating debris from an asteroid or other astral body collision, or the transit of another star across Kepler’s viewing plane as it observed KIC 8462852 which brought with it several comets which passed in front of KIC. However, despite the more scientific plausibility of these explanations in most astronomy circles, Boyajian herself casts doubt on these explanations, as no other instances of these possible scenarios were reported from the other 150,000 stars Kepler is keeping track of.

“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told The Atlantic. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Other researchers have been wary of Wright’s findings, arguing that the debris is something much more out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, the findings have created a buzz in scientific circles, with the search for tangible evidence of alien life being one of the hottest topics  for space watchers such as NASA these days.

“Whether there are aliens constructing huge megastructures to meet their power needs at KIC 8462852, or — overwhelmingly more likely — it’s a more natural scenario, this is a pretty weird and interesting star. And it’s definitely worth investigating further,” Phil Plait, an astronomer, wrote in Slate.

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“Researchers may have discovered alien structures on distant star” – Renee Lewis, Al Jazeera America/Al Jazeera America, LLC. (15 October 2015)
“File:Kepler first five exoplanet size.jpg” –  David Koch, Alan Gould, Edna DeVore, Steve Quinn & NASA via Wikimedia Commons (4 January 2010)

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