The ever mysterious “alien megastructure” star has gone haywire again.
Tabby’s star, also called the Boyajian star, is once again exhibiting an eccentric pattern of dimming and brightening, prompting astronomers around the world to turn their telescopes towards it in the hopes of solving the mystery behind its strange behavior, as reported by Gizmodo.
Back in September 2015, a team of scientists led by Tabetha Boyajian (the star’s namesake) detected an irregularity in Tabby’s star’s brightness. Scientists presented several interesting hypotheses that could explain its behavior, including a swarm of comets, a recently-destroyed planet, and massive electromagnetic activity. But perhaps the most exotic hypothesis that’s been forwarded is the possibility that the star’s dimming was caused by an “alien megastructure,” or a Dyson sphere.
Jason Wright, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, broke the news on Twitter, urging amateur and professional astronomers to point their telescopes towards Tabby’s star and to provide spectra results for further analysis.
“At about 4 a.m. this morning I got a phone call … that Fairborn [Observatory] in Arizona had confirmed that the star was three percent dimmer than it normally is,” Wright said during a live webcast yesterday at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT). “That is enough that we are absolutely confident that this is no statistical fluke. We’ve now got it confirmed at multiple observatories, I think.”
What is a “spectra” and why was Mr. Wright asking for it? Fundamentally, a spectra is a set of data acquired using multi-color photometry. Its basic function is to give specific measurements at different wavelengths, helping scientists figure out what type of material is causing the star’s light to dip.
“Whatever’s causing the star to get dimmer will leave a spectral fingerprint behind,” Wright said during the webcast. “So if there is a lot of dust between us and the star … it will block more blue light than red light. If there is gas in that dust, that gas should absorb very specific wavelengths and we should be able to see that. And so, we’ve been eager to see one of these changes in one of these dips of the star so we can take some spectra.”
It’s difficult to predict when and how long a dimming event would occur, which is why astronomers make it a point to schedule professional-grade telescope observations weeks or months in advance.
“We need to have a network of people around the world that are ready to jump on [and observe it],” Wright said. “Fortunately, Tabby’s star is not too faint and so there are a lot of observers and telescopes … that have graciously agreed to take some time out of their science to grab a spectrum for us [tonight].”
Astronomers are still baffled by Tabby star’s behavior. As established, no star has been detected to exhibit such behavior. Even the most conservative assumptions seem unlikely on account of current technologies and our limited undertanding of the universe. As previously reported by The Atlantic, the star’s brightness has dipped by more than 20 percent. To get an idea of how significant that is, consider the fact that Jupiter blocking the sun could cause it to dip by only two percent. Picturing a structure massive enough to cause a dimming behavior of such scale stretches the limits of the imagination, which is why it’s not so surprising to see claims that it was caused by an alien megastructure.
Of course, the chances that we’re looking at a construction project being undertaken by aliens from outer space are pretty slim given the limited data our scientists have at this point. Ironically, it’s the explanation that makes the most sense. Even scientists, as beholden as they are to the scientific method, are excited about the possibility that they are out there.
[Featured Image by Marc Ward/Shutterstock]