Deep Space Lessons From the TED Conference

Greetings from the TED conference in Vancouver, B.C., where the speaker I’ve been hosting and coaching, Tabetha Boyajian, spoke about a bizarre star and planet 1,500 light-years from earth. She is an energetic and spirited post-doc at Yale, and the star, KIC 8462852, has been nicknamed “Tabby’s Star,” because she discovered a weird dimming in recent months that defies explanation.

By looking back into previous photographic records of the star, astronomers have been able to determine that over the last 100 years, Tabby’s Star has dimmed about 20% in brightness, an unheard-of phenomenon in such a short time.

By looking back into previous photographic records of the star, astronomers have been able to determine that over the last 100 years, Tabby’s Star has dimmed about 20% in brightness, an unheard-of phenomenon in such a short time.

Even more ridiculous, the star, which has been observed in recent years by the Kepler space observatory, has dimmed as much as 22% in a very short time. There is no explanation astronomers can come up with that involves the physical universe as we have come to know it. A planet large enough to cause such quick dimming would have to be at least 1,000 times the size of Earth, far larger than any planet ever observed around such a star, and its size alone would cause other abnormalities we could easily observe.

The only rational explanation proposed so far involves either a clustering of thousands of comets or the dust from the explosion of a single huge comet. But when astronomer Bradley Schaefer at Louisiana State University looked, he calculated that it would take 648,000 comets passing between the star and Earth to cause such a dimming — a phenomenon beyond imagining. A dust storm from an exploding comet was ruled out because it would show up as a heat event on infrared instruments.

Unless the star itself is unlike any star ever observed, in that it can occasionally brighten or dim, there is one explanation left that some Earthlings have grabbed at — aliens. Last October, an astronomer at Penn State University, Jason Wright, got some attention when he offered up the idea that an advanced civilization on a planet orbiting the star might have run out of energy resources and constructed giant Dyson spheres or other energy-gathering structures that orbit the star.

Tabby Boyajian herself is extremely reluctant to grab onto the alien theory, and university astronomers who invoke the “alien” word often run into career trouble.

“I think the chance it could be aliens is about one in a million,” she told me. In her talk, she quoted Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Nonetheless, no one yet has been able to rule out the possibility that Tabby’s Star means we are not alone in the universe.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for, The Daily Reckoning