By: April Carson
It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before, when astronomers noticed a strange light pattern near a distant star called KIC 8462852 in October.
When a planet passes in front of star, the event usually causes the latter's brightness to dim by approximately 1 percent. However, KIC 8462852 has had dips of up to 22 percent, hinting that something much larger is flying past it. Curiously enough, another star with odd drops in brightness has been discovered recently.
The star is known as EPIC 204278916 and has an estimated diameter of about that of our Sun but half its mass.
NASA's Kepler spacecraft discovered it in 2014, and a team of astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics led by Simone Scaringi have been watching its dips in light—termed 'light curves'—since.
"The light curve of EPIC 204278916 shows a similar pattern of dimming to KIC 8462852," Scaringi said in a press release.
The object known as KIC 8462852 is stranger than this.
The research team observed the flickering light of EPIC 204278916 for 78.8 days, and noted that it dimmed by up to 65 percent for 25 days in a row.
Back when researchers were trying to explain the fluctuations in brightness of KIC 8462852 - also known as Tabby's Star - they came up with two explanations that made sense, and one which was less so.
The first guess was that the strange light cliffs were made by a lot of comets circling the star.
The second theory posits that KIC 8462852 is a 'distorted star' whose rotation speed causes it to oblate, or appear larger at the equator than at the poles.
This, according to Dr. John Prineas, is caused by "a push of energy from the sun through the earth's magnetic field," which leads to greater temperatures and a "brightening" at the poles while the equator is dimmed.
The more far-fetched explanation is that the dimming could be caused by a Dyson Sphere. This would be an enormous sphere made of solar panels surrounding a star; this has been featured in several science fiction stories.
"If you must consider aliens as a possibility, know that this is probably one of the more likely things an alien civilisation would build," Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University told The Atlantic when the discovery was made.
The 'distorted star' hypothesis has been pretty much rejected by researchers, and a study back in January found that for a dimming of about 20 percent over an entire century to be possible, it would require 648,000 comets - each 200 kilometres wide - to have transited the star. However, this number is highly improbable.
There are other potential explanations for KIC 8462852's strange behavior. It could be a binary star system, with two stars orbiting each other closely and causing occasional dips in brightness as they pass in front of each other from our perspective. Or it could be that the star itself is surrounded by a dusty disk that's blocking some of the light, similar to how Saturn appears to have a "ring" around it.
The researchers behind the new EPIC 204278916 observations from Germany believe that its large dips in the light curve are due to a protoplanetary disk that is 'edge-on' in relation to Earth, implying it's not only blocking the light from the star at specific times, but also that we're at the wrong angle to see its own infrared radiation.
The outer shell of a protoplanetary disc is a rotating disk of dense gas and dust that surrounds a new star, which is possible in this instance since EPIC 204278916 appears to be young - no more than 11 million years old. In comparison, our Sun is thought to be 4.5 billion years old.
According to Ethan Siegel in his article on It Starts With a Bang, "Any infrared radiation would be invisible" if we were to align with a star that has its disk oriented edge-on. Young Stellar Objects (YSOs) have been known to display the same large flux dips as this strange star, and recent studies have shown that they come in a variety of inclination angles.
The most exciting aspect is that the theory may also be used to explain KIC 8462852, according to Siegel. "It’s possible that KIC 8462852 has a companion, or multiple companions, at a similar distance and brightness."
This is the first time that a star has been found with such characteristics. It's very possible that many more exist in our galaxy, just waiting to be discovered.
While KIC 8462852 was initially believed to be hundreds of millions of years old, some astronomers now think it might be younger - just like EPIC 204278916.
Even if it's not young, though, mature stars are sometimes known to have rings of dusty debris called circumstellar disks. These always include a huge outer disk, but often an inner one too.
In a similar way to how an edge-on protoplanetary disk would, one of these circumstellar disks could be in an eccentric orbit surrounding KIC 8462852 and impacting our observations.
"If this star turns out to be younger than is generally accepted (which many professional astronomers believe it is), if it has a disk that is edge-on (so we don't see the infrared glow), and if there's either a warped inner disk or comet-like debris, then what we've discovered could be a new step in a class of stars' early development!" According to Siegel, this is possible.
The German team's findings are not yet concrete because they have not gone through the peer-review process. Their observations were recently published on pre-print site arXiv.org, so that other researchers can attempt to find faults in their theory.
It will take a lot more study to determine if this idea can explain the KIC 8462852 mystery.
With Kepler slated to make new observations of EPIC 204278916 next year and researchers preparing to focus the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network on KIC 8462852 for an entire year, answers may not be far off.
"I think the most likely explanation is that it's something natural," Siegel said. "But, of course, the Kepler data has been so surprising at every turn that I would not be surprised if it turned out to be something really unusual."
But while the search for an intelligent civilization behind KIC 8462852 continues, researchers can attempt to find faults in their theory.
This article was originally published on Space.com.
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