No, an alien megastructure doesn’t explain that mysterious star

no alien megastructure youngstar
How do you explain an outer space discovery that confounds even astronomers? Blame it on aliens. At least that often seems to be the first reaction when such mysteries arise.

Take “Tabby’s Star” as a case in point. In 2015, a strange star named KIC 8462852 ignited interest and speculation inside and outside the scientific community, fueled in part by Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, who suggested that the star’s unusual dimming events might be caused by an alien megastructure that surrounded it. His thought was that a structure, such as a Dyson sphere, would periodically obstruct the star’s light, and thus cause its appearance to dim.

KIC 8462852 was first spotted in 2011 by citizen scientists through a program called Planet Hunters, which lets people examine light patterns from the comfort of their computers.

“The original discovery of this star was made by citizen scientists, who found what the professionals had missed because it was so strange and so different from what we expected that our computer algorithms had missed it entirely,” Wright told Digital Trends.

The star was later studied by a team led by Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, earning it the nickname “Tabby’s Star” and generating a lot of buzz. Over 1,700 people donated more than $100,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to give astronomers dedicated time to observe the star and collect data from ground-based telescopes. And thanks to their donations, Boyajian, Wright, and over 100 other astronomers have been able to debunk the alien megastructure theory.

The more likely explanation is less sexy but still important. According to a paper published this week in he Astrophysical Journal Letters, the star’s unusual dimming events are caused by little more than clouds of dust.

“Dust is most likely the reason why the star’s light appears to dim and brighten,” Boyajian said.

That news might come as a shame to alien hunters, but the findings were anything but disappointing for the scientists involved. While observing the star from March 2016 to December 2017, the researchers identified four occasions when the star’s light dimmed and, equipped with an unparalleled wealth of cosmic data, they reasoned that the events weren’t caused by an advanced civilization.

“The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure,” Boyajian said.

Aliens may have been ruled out but there’s still plenty of data to sift through.

“We still have troves of data that were contributed that we have not analyzed yet,” Wright said. For his part, Wright want to investigate the “exocomet hypothesis,” which suggests that the dimming could be due to matter left behind from a handful of Halley-like comments.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

New Sony patent suggests a wireless PSVR headset could be on the way

Images and documents in the Japan Patent Office appear to suggest that Sony is planning a wireless version of the PlayStation VR headset. It isn't clear which system it will be used for.
Emerging Tech

Cosmic dust bunnies: Scientists find unexpected ring around Mercury

A pair of scientists searching for a dust-free region near the Sun have made an unexpected discovery: a vast cosmic dust ring millions of miles wide around the tiny planet Mercury.

Sony could use a robot to turn your PlayStation into a fitness machine

Sony submitted a patent application for a robotic device equipped with a camera to assist in your workout. The images included suggest that the device will work with your PlayStation console.

Apple’s officially sets date, location for 2019 Worldwide Developers Conference

Apple developers and fans alike look forward every year to the company's Worldwide Developers Conference, better known as WWDC. After rumors suggested as much, Apple has confirmed that the conference will take place on June 3-7.
Emerging Tech

Desk lamps take on a new task by converting their light to power

What if we could charge devices using light from indoor sources like desk lamps? A group of scientists working on a technology called organic photovoltaics (OPVs) aim to do just that.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-generated text is supercharging fake news. This is how we fight back

A new A.I. tool is reportedly able to spot passages of text written by algorithm. Here's why similar systems might prove essential in a world of fake news created by smart machines.
Emerging Tech

Body surrogate robot helps people with motor impairments care for themselves

A team from Georgia Tech has come up with an assistant robot to help people who have severe motor impairments to perform tasks like shaving, brushing their hair, or drinking water.
Emerging Tech

New Hubble image displays dazzling Messier 28 globular cluster

Messier 28 is a group of stars in the constellation of Sagittarius, located 18,000 light-years from our planet. Thousands of stars are packed tightly together in this sparkling image.
Emerging Tech

Take a dip in the Lagoon Nebula in first image from SPECULOOS instrument

The European Southern Observatory has released the first image collected by their new SPECULOOS instrument, and it's a stunning portrait of the Lagoon Nebula, a swirling cloud of dust and gas where new stars are born.
Emerging Tech

Robot assistants from Toyota and Panasonic gear up for the Tokyo Olympics

Japan plans to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase a range of its advanced technologies. Toyota and Panasonic are already getting in on the act, recently unveiling several robotic designs that they intend to deploy at the event.
Emerging Tech

Racing to catch a flight? Robot valet at French airport will park your car

Hate searching for parking at the airport when you need to catch a plane? Startup Stanley Robotics recently unveiled a new outdoor automated robotic valet system. Here's how it works.

Bags with brains: Smart luggage and gadgets are making travel smoother

The bag you use to tote your stuff can affect the experience of any trip. In response, suitcases are wising up, and there are now options for smart luggage with scales, tracking, and more. Here are our favorite pieces.

At $99, Nvidia’s Jetson Nano minicomputer seeks to bring robotics to the masses

Nvidia announced a new A.I. computer, the Jetson Nano. This computer comes with an 128-core GPU that Nvidia claims can handle pretty much any A.I. framework you could imagine. At $99, it's an affordable way for A.I. newbies to get involved.