In October of this year, the media kind of lost it’s mind (that happens from time to time).
It all started when the Atlantic published an article on strange lights surrounding a rather unique star, KIC 8462852. Unfortunately, that wonderful article about a strange and interesting star got turned into these gems: Has Kepler Discovered an Alien Megastructure?, Have we Detected Megastructures Built by Aliens Around a Distant Star?
Because, of course, it’s only valuable science if you can make aliens the focal point. And (spoiler alert!) scientists were pretty sure from the start that it was not aliens, so those titles are asking rather silly questions with a rather simple answer – No.
When the story came out, we made it abundantly clear that the strange properties of this star were (probably) most definitely not due to aliens. As our initial report states, “You don’t feel a breeze and go, ‘Ah! Must be ghosts!’ You get up and close the window. Similarly, you don’t see some unexpected dimming in a star and go, ‘Scientists found aliens!’ You look to all the other (far more likely) scenarios first. And sure, tell people about the more wild hypotheses, but here’s the thing: That should come after the sound science.”
And unsurprisingly, all of our subsequent observations (from SETI, NASA, etc.) have revealed that the unique lights are caused by things that are much more mundane than aliens.
Several possible explanations for the star’s unusual and inconsistent levels of brightness have been raised. These include an asteroid belt collision, a giant impact on an exoplanet, or a dusty cloud of rock and debris. Some scientists even considered if a Dyson sphere built by an advanced alien civilization was the cause, and they used SETI telescopes to check this hypothesis (that’s where all the media sensationalism came from).
Another proposal by researchers from Yale University suggests that a family of comets is the most likely explanation. A new study using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope finds more evidence that the mystery surrounding the star may really involve a swarm of extrasolar comets.
The astronomers looked at two different infrared wavelengths: The shorter was consistent with a typical star and the longer showed some infrared emissions, but not enough to reach a detection threshold. From the observations, it was concluded that there was no excess in infrared emissions.
So what does this mean?
It means that there are no signs of an asteroid belt collision, a giant impact on an exoplanet, or a dusty cloud of rock and debris. Thus, this leaves astronomers with the destruction of a family of comets near the star. It seems that KIC 8462852’s light may be affected by a big debris cloud of comet fragments coming in rapidly at a steep, elliptical orbit. This cloud should move off, restoring the star’s brightness and leaving no trace of excess infrared light.
Studies on KIC 8462852 are still underway to conclusively settle this “mystery.”