Are The Kepler Mystery Objects Alien Megastructures Or Something More Mundane?

NASA’s Kepler space observatory is tasked with looking for planets outside our solar system, but a recently published paper shows that Kepler has turned up a number of mystery objects that defy explanation. The mysterious objects could be the remains of a comet, a newly-formed asteroid field, or even alien megastructures designed to capture solar energy.

In order to understand this discovery, and why it is so difficult to identify the mystery objects, it’s important to first understand exactly what Kepler is, and what it isn’t.

Unlike other space telescopes, the only scientific instrument on Kepler is a photometer. That means it can’t take fancy pictures like the Hubble, but it is very good at the job it was designed for, which is to look for planets outside our solar system.

kepler space observatory Kepler is really just a photometer in space. [Credit: NASA]Kepler’s photometer is capable of simultaneously monitoring the brightness of more than 145,000 main sequence stars at once. When the brightness of one of those stars dims, and dims again, in a recognizable pattern, the assumption is that a planet is orbiting around it.

For a visual demonstration of how Kepler looks for planets, and how the mystery objects fit into that, you can watch the helpful video below.

Most of the time, Kepler finds objects that fit into the mold of planetary bodies that we are familiar with. Other times, Kepler provides signs of mysterious objects that later turn out to just be bad data.

In the case of the star KIC 8462852, Kepler located a number of mystery objects, but the data proved good.

“We’d never seen anything like this star [KIC 8462852],” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral candidate at Yale University, told the Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

According to the Atlantic, KIC 8462852 was first flagged in 2011 as “interesting” and “bizarre” by a team of volunteer data analysts overseen by Boyajian.

What makes the light patterns, and the objects that created them, so mysterious is that nothing like it has been observed out of the more than 145,000 stars that Kepler keeps track of.

Recently, Boyajian published a paper describing the strange light patterns observed from KIC 8462852. The paper, which is available online via ArXiv.org, suggests a number of potential explanations for the mystery objects.

According to the Atlantic, the light patterns Kepler detected from KIC 8462852 could be from the sort of dust and debris that surround young stars before the formation of planets, but the star is not young.

The Kepler mystery objects could also be a recently captured or created asteroid field, the remains of a comet, or even the kind of massive, planetary impact that is thought to have created our moon.

Boyajian’s paper explores and discards those and a number of other theories about the mysterious objects. One likely, if very coincidental, way to explain the Kepler mystery objects is that they represent a vast sea of comets pulled in when another unknown star passed through the KIC 8462852 system.

kepler field of view Kepler monitors over 145,000 stars, which is still only a tiny slice of the sky. [Credit: NASA]The Atlantic spoke to Jason Wright, an astronomer with Penn State, and he provided an alternate explanation for the mysterious objects.

“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.”

ABC News reports that Wright has also written that he doesn’t really think the mystery objects are likely to be alien megastructures. While he doesn’t believe that Boyajian’s comet explanation is likely, it is more likely than anything else.

According to Discovery News, the next step in identifying the nature of the Kepler mystery objects is to aim a radio antenna at KIC 8462852. Discovery News reports that Wright, Boyajian, and Andrew Siemion, from SETI, have come together to work on that project.

If a radio telescope detects artificial transmissions from KIC 8462852, that would be a solid indication that the Kepler mystery objects are alien megastructures. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until 2017 for the objects to pass in front of the star again, when more data will become available.

[Image credit: zeber / Shutterstock]