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Sky Frontiers : Alien Engineering Around Strange Star?

Alien Engineering Around Strange Star?

There's a new big dipper in the nighttime sky.

No, it's not a cozy constellation, but a distant, non-descript star that
behaves like a shipboard semaphore, beaming flashes of light into the cosmic
darkness that seem random, but may not be.

While the luminous output from everyday stars is relentlessly steady, this
one occasionally dips its brightness as much as 20 percent, suggesting either
that it is orbited by lumps of dust, rock or other opaque material, or - and
hang onto your desk chair - there are residents in this stellar system who have
deliberately built hardware of a size and extent big enough to intercept a
substantial amount of their sun's output. In that case, what we're seeing is the
consequence of a massive, alien construction project.

Seriously? Could this star, lovingly named KIC 846 2852 - a fairly ordinary
stellar orb roughly half-again as big as our Sun and nearly five times brighter
- be home to some advanced society that's solving its energy crisis by
constructing what's called a Dyson sphere (or more practically, a Dyson swarm):
a phalanx of solar panels that orbit their sun, turn oodles of starlight into
electricity, and then beam that energy back to the home planet to power their
fossil fuel-free lifestyle?

Well, that's certainly a possibility. The idea of Dyson swarms (first
proposed by physicist Freeman Dyson) is appealing enough to have tempted several
astronomers to look for them throughout the Galaxy. They've done so by searching
for the warm glow of infrared light that would waft off the back side of the
solar panels. Their task is tricky however, because any dust floating in the
space between the planets (and there's always dust!) would mimic this
infrared glow.

But KIC 846 2852 is different, because the evidence suggesting
astroengineering is direct - there's a clear-cut and periodic dimming of the
starlight - a much more straightforward observation than trying to tease out a
foggy bit of infrared light.

Given this intriguing behavior, shouldn't we be checking out this star more
carefully? Isn't it possible that this is a home to true cosmic intelligence -
not just pond scum in the watery recesses of a nearby world, but technically
adept beings who might have something interesting to tell us ... or at least
spark endless conversation by becoming the first sentience discovered other than
our own?

Of course. But history gently prods us to temper our enthusiasm by noting
that the explanation for KIC 846 2852's inconstant glare might be prosaic,
rather than profound. This star is one of the 150,000 stellar targets examined
by NASA's Kepler space telescope. It was also one that was vetted in a citizen
science campaign that used human eyeballs (as opposed to computer code) to hunt
for unusual features. And indeed, what the humans found would likely have
escaped notice by the software. The changes in brightness were highly variable
and substantial, much as you might expect from a small swarm of moths attacking
a street lamp.

The scientists who wrote the paper announcing this behavior gave their own
take on what's going on here - their own explanations for what these "moths"
might be. Clumps of dust are a possibility, as is natural variability of the
star itself, or even errors in the data processing.

But none of these seem to cut the mustard. The discoverers prefer another
explanation: A small star, now visible about 100 billion miles away from KIC 846
2852, recently made a closer pass, and disturbed some outer solar system comets.
Much as lifting a rock sends sow bugs scurrying, the gravitational tug of this
star could have prodded otherwise inoffensive comets to careen towards the inner
regions of the KIC 846 2852 star system, filling it with debris that's causing
the blinking.

That would be interesting, but obviously less exciting than finding a Dyson
swarm. Still we must beware: Given our natural inclination to blame aliens for
just about all unexplained phenomena on Earth, it's inevitable we'll give them
credit even when they're not involved. Pulsars, when first discovered, were
dubbed "Little Green Men" by Cambridge astronomers. They turned out to be dead
stars. CTA 102 - a quasar discovered in the early 1960s, was seen to change its
brightness very quickly, and at least a few Soviet astronomers figured that
clever extraterrestrials were sending coded messages to whoever was paying
attention. In fact, it turns out that quasars just naturally blink and for
reasons that have nothing to do with intelligence.

In addition, KIC 846 2852 is hardly a star system anyone would finger as
"most likely to house aliens." A few thousand degrees hotter than the Sun, this
star would bleach the surface of any encircling planet with highly unfriendly
ultraviolet light. In addition, it will take only 3 billion years for it to
totally exhaust its natal supply of hydrogen fuel. It will die young. Keep in
mind that it took 4-1/2 billion years for life on Earth to reach our own, modest
technological level.

These are not show-stoppers: Maybe other planets can produce clever critters
a lot faster than Earth did, and maybe the inhabitants are born with a number 50
sunblock epidermis.

And more generally, one shouldn't let healthy skepticism degrade into
unattractive pig-headedness, even if in this case the evidence for something
revolutionary isn't terribly promising. You have to follow up. And we are.

Since October 16, the SETI institute has been using its Allen Telescope Array
to observe KIC 846 2852 over a wide range of radio frequencies (1 to 10 GHz),
looking for any artificial signals. Keep in mind that this star system is
relatively far, roughly 1400 light-years away. That's more distant than the
Orion Nebula, and getting there (if you feel the need) would require a 23
million year ride in our fastest rocket. But more to the point, any signals
detectable here on Earth would have to be exceptionally powerful.

We're continuing to analyze the data. In another week, our SETI team will
once again observe KIC 846 2852 using some new receivers being affixed to the
Allen Array - known as Antonio feeds - that will increase the sensitivity by a
factor of two. Check this space.

Meanwhile, consider KIC 846 2852 as something suggestive of cosmic company,
but no more than a suggestion. 
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