Artist's impression of a Dyson swarm

Artist’s impression of a Dyson swarm. By Vedexent at en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY 2.5

Something is blocking the light coming from a distant star known as KIC 8462852. The star has become a kind of mystery because no one seems to be able to figure out what is blocking it. Whatever it is, it is massive. Like 1000 times the area of Earth.

KIC 8462852 (where KIC stands for Kepler Input Catalog) is one of 150,000 stars studied by NASA’s Kepler space telescope that is searching for planets. It was found in a star-packed region of the Milky Way. What caught the attention of astronomers over the past 4 years is that the star repeatedly and inexplicably would dim and then brighten again. It doesn’t seem to be the star itself which is stable. And the flickering is irregular, so they discount that it is the shadows of planets passing in front of the star. Is it comet dust? Debris from a shattered planet?  The star itself is calm and stable, but it is getting dimmer.

Is it just a oddball star or the one example we have found of another type of star?

KIC 8462852 is sometimes called “Tabby’s star” after planet-hunter Tabetha Boyajian and her team of  researchers who study it. It is also called the WTF Star for “where’s the flux” because of its unusual brightness variations.

The wildest explanation, and therefore the one I’m interested in, is that it is an alien megastructure.

One astronomer, Jason Wright, got a lot of media attention when he hypothesized that a megastructure made by an alien civilization might be what is blocking the star. There is something called a Dyson swarm which is a hypothetical structure that an advanced civilization might build around a star to intercept some of its light for their energy needs. Is it a solar power satellite or a space habitat?

This idea was popularized by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation.” Dyson speculated that if we looked for such things we would be likely to find alien civilizations. These structures would be the logical consequence of the escalating energy needs of a technological civilization and would be a necessity for its long-term survival. Those aliens need a lot of power.

Even Jason Wright thinks the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence causing the star to dim is quite low.

This story reminds me a bit of the Wow! Signal which is also still mysterious after much study. People are still studying the Wow! Signal and the WTF Star and I would think that WTF Star is a good SETI target for finding extra-terrestrial life.

Boyajian thinks it probably is an unusual type of comet swarm, but I’m still hoping for something more alien. However, a friend of mine has warned me that my wish is a bad one. “What do you want them to find – a Death Star?,” he asked me.

No, I don’t want it to be like the Death Stars appearing in the Star Wars movies. But even the second Death Star was only 99 mi (160 km) in diameter. Imagine a Death Star 1000 times the size of Earth designed to gather massive power from the star and able to easily destroy an entire planet with a blast from some superlaser.

Okay, I guess it better be a comet swarm rather than a Dyson swarm – although that would make a boring movie.