Louisiana State University (LSU) assistant professor of physics and astronomy, Tabetha “Tabby” Boyajian, has been observing a mysterious star for several years now. Unusual series of events wherein the star dimmed were detected. The dip in the star’s brightness or also known as flux seems to be unexplainable. The mysterious star, now called “Tabby’s Star”, was formerly known as KIC 8462852.
Tabby’s Star is 1,300 light-years away and larger than the sun. It has been dimming occasionally for days at a time. This sparked the interest and curiosity of several astronomers like Boyajian. Boyajian has been downloading and analyzing data from the Las Cumbres telescopes. Two of the telescopes are located in Maui, Hawaii while another two sat on the Spanish island of Tenerife off the coast of West Africa. Data from the telescopes in Hawaii revealed that Tabby’s Star was starting to dim again.
Boyajian, together with her colleagues and crowdsourced amateur astronomers all over the world, observed the star as it grew dimmer. In the span of five days, the star, which was discovered in 2009, decreased its brightness by 2%. “With this star, you don’t have the regular, periodic dips. There is no period in which you know dips will occur. The dips last for extraordinarily long periods of time—different durations each time. Stars just don’t do that,” says Boyajian.
Daryll LaCourse, co-author of the discovery paper, explains, “The problem with Tabby’s Star is that every explanation that doesn’t involve aliens has some sort of problem, some unresolved big issue with that particular theory.”
Astronomers have been wondering what causes the erratic behavior of this particular star. A lineup of possible explanations however, were raised by them. Some explanations include catastrophic collision of planets, detritus from comets, aftereffects of the star devouring its planet, or a massive construction formed by aliens. The flux can signal that a planet is passing in front of it. However, researchers say that the dimming that apparently occurred over the course of a century and its seemingly unusual occurrence may have been caused by how telescopes and cameras have changed over time.
In 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Mission, a space observatory aircraft designed to monitor and discover Earth-size planets orbiting stars other than our sun. The field of Kepler’s vision included more than 150,000 stars. Every 30 minutes, the aircraft took a measurement of the light curve of each star’s brightness. Over the next four years, until 2013, the Kepler Mission was able to record dips in flux of Tabby’s Star. Its luminosity faded up to 22 percent in dips in the span of five to 80 days.
Boyajian published a discovery paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Boyajian’s co-authors include several professional astronomers and 11 citizen scientists who aided in the monitoring of the star. The astronomers asked, “Where’s the flux?” and some people started to call Tabby’s Star as “WTF Star.”
Boyajian believes that the flux could be caused by being hidden behind a swarm of comets that have fallen towards the star. Rocky debris that resulted from a catastrophic collision could be blocking the star’s light at these unpredictable intervals. However, for every theory that they came up with, they also had to come up with reasons to question that theory. “There’s definitely nothing we know of now that’s able to explain it. Nature is a lot more creative than we are,” Boyajian said.
As of now, questions regarding the flux have remained unanswered. Astronomers have not confirmed nor figured out the real reason behind this unusual occurrence. Despite this, the answer does not seem to be that far off our grasp. Aliens having the capability of building massive structures harvesting the star’s light could certainly be one of them.