A paper by a team of astronomers has folks talking about aliens – even though the paper never really discusses aliens. I find it intriguing, but, for me, the real thought experiment is something I will conclude with here.
These astronomers found an odd star that behaves in a way that is difficult to explain. The star is boringly called KIC 8462852. (Astronomers need to work on their naming conventions. “Death Star” would have been much better.) NASA’s Kepler mission has found this and many other stars. The brightness of this star dips, as do many stars. There is a slight dimming when a star has planets that orbit it and pass directly in front of the star as seen from Earth or the telescope. That is called a transit. The brightness dips about one percent or less. It is a way that exoplanets have been found. The dip will be periodic, repeating every few days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the planet’s orbit.
KIC 8462852 is bigger, hotter and brighter than our Sun, but too faint to see with the naked eye. The dips in the light from it are not periodic but arbitrary and sometimes drop by 15 or 22 percent.
That’s not from a planet. Even a big Jupiter-sized one would only knock out that 1 percent of the starlight. But whatever it is, it’s big – maybe half the size of the star. I remember from elementary science class that you could fit more than a thousand Earths inside the Sun. Very big something out there.
The scientists probably suspected the furor and buzz this would get in the press and included obvious causes that can be eliminated. It’s not a flaw in the telescope, or debris from a planetary collision or a series of comets orbiting the star.
Physicist Freeman Dyson popularized the Dyson Sphere (not a fancy rolling ball vacuum cleaner) which speculated that we (or some aliens) might build thousands of gigantic solar panels and put them in orbit around their Sun to power the planet. This could expand until you had a gigantic sphere that completely enclosed the star.
It sounds like something from sci-fi (and it was in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation). This sphere would be dark in visible light but emit a lot of infrared light.
Have we observed an advanced alien civilization building a huge solar collectors?
An article published in The Atlantic by Wright and Boyajian is what has Internet-popularized this topic.
This is the dream of those who use radio telescopes to look for signals from out there and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and all the alien watchers and those who hope to make contact. (Yeah, watch the movie or read the book by that name.)
Here’s my big takeaway. The light we are seeing is 1500 light years away. If they were building 1500 years ago, I suspect that they are done by now. And if they are watching us, they are seeing us in about 505 A.D. We certainly look like a bunch of dopes who could easily be conquered, on a nice planet with water and resources. Do we really want to find them or have them find us?