Could Tabby’s Star be hiding an alien megastructure?
About 1,500 light years from here is a very unusual star. Its official designation is “KIC 8462852,” but it’s more colloquially known as “Tabby’s Star.” It’s called this because it exhibits some very strange behaviors that were first noticed by a team led by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian.
The thing that’s unusual about it is that during the time we’ve been observing it (about 100 years), Tabby’s Star has been getting dimmer and dimmer. But, it’s not a slow, steady dimming. Instead, it will dip up to 20 percent in brightness temporarily and then go back to full brightness. Almost as if something were passing between us as it orbits around the star.
Of course, that’s how we’ve been detecting planets all over the galaxy for the last decade or so. You watch a star, and look for a dip in brightness. Then, you wait for it to happen again and again, in a regular fashion. Once you’ve got a regular series of dips, you can be pretty sure you’ve found a planet.
The problem with Tabby’s Star is that the dips aren’t regular, and they aren’t uniform, and they are getting “worse” over time. Almost as if some random assortment of gigantic, bigger-than-a-planet-sized things are circling the star, dimming it at random intervals that have no relation to any knowns phenomena. (A planet, even one the size of Jupiter, will only dim it’s host star by about one percent. The 20 percent dips seen at Tabby’s Star are inexplicable and unprecedented.
So, what could it be?
Well, the first guess was faulty equipment or bad data. But, that was ruled out pretty quickly.
In fact, going back and looking at old photographic plates that included Tabby’s Star actually showed that the erratic dimming has been going on for at least a century now.
Another theory was that a different star had passed through the equivalent of Tabby’s Oort Cloud and had driven a massive number of comets towards Tabby’s Star. But, the massive amount of dimming seems to rule that out.
This amount of dimming could happen if Tabby’s Star was a young star. That would mean it’s surrounded by dust, which would give off excess infrared light. But, that isn’t happening, so, we’re pretty sure Tabby’s Star is a mature star.
So, what does that leave us with? Well, how about aliens?
That’s right….“aliens” is actually being bandied about as a (very) low-probability cause for this weird behavior. Specifically, aliens that are building a mega-structure around Tabby’s Star.
The mega-structure in question is probably some variant of a Dyson Sphere. A Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical construct that allows an advanced civilization to “cage” and capture 100 percent of the solar output from their home star.
Basically, you dismantle every single planet in your solar system (including your home world), and you use the raw materials to build a sphere around your star. Once you have the star enclosed, you can harvest 100 percent of its energy output.
How much energy is that? Well, our star, good old Sol, puts out 3.83×10^26 Joules per second. Compare this with the total energy consumption of the United States for the entire year of 2009, which was a paltry 1.4×10^19 Joules, and you’ll see that caging a star is a great way to solve your energy crisis.
So, while it’s unlikely, it is possible that what we are seeing around Tabby’s Star are giant sections of an in-progress Dyson Sphere. As these sections, larger than any planet, whip around the star, they are causing these dramatic dips in brightness that we see here on Earth. While this is highly unlikely, at this point, nothing we’ve seen rules it out.
As a result, more and more telescopes are being turned towards Tabby’s Star in an attempt to catch our Alien neighbors in their home improvement project. Who knows? Maybe in a decade or so, we’ll have the proof that we aren’t alone after all.
But, even if it’s not aliens, whatever it is is new and interesting…and that’s what Science is all about!
Steven Disbrow is a programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development, an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.