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  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare.
Shield your outside lights downward.
Let the stars light up the night.

November 2015 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

A very strange star:

One peculiar star from the Kepler Space Telescope survey is causing quite a stir in astronomical circles. While there are several theories as to its unusual winking, there is one real possibility scientists are reluctant to admit: aliens!

Kepler is a telescope designed to find exoplanets by looking for a planet to orbit between its star and Earth. As the planet passes in front of the star, the brightness of the star decreases by a miniscule amount before returning to normal. Bigger planets block a bit more light than an Earth-sized one. Thanks mostly to Kepler, but also to a few from ground-based telescopes, we know there are 1901 planets orbiting distant stars. Four hundred and seventy-six stars have multiple planets in orbit. The Kepler mission still has 4696 planetary candidates waiting to be confirmed. With so many planets orbiting distant stars, it is no surprise that a few of these would be a bit unusual, but one, KIC 8462852, is just plain baffling.

After four years of observation, a group of citizen scientists were searching through Kepler data and found two instances of radical dimming in a star designated as KIC 8462852. While most dimming events caused by planets decrease a star’s brightness by a measly percent or two; this KIC 8462852’s light is dimmed by twenty percent. No planet could possibly block that much light.

In searching for a cause of this radical behavior, the scientists measured the time between the brightness changes. They found a fairly regular 21 hour period of dimming, but they also found a few others, too. The 21-hour change is attributed to the rotation of the star itself. The other dimming periods are difficult to explain naturally, especially an event that blocks twenty percent of the star’s light. Perhaps KIC 8462852 is a variable star that changes its brightness regularly. After checking for the known characteristics of a variable, KIC 8462852 does not fit the profile. Could a big clump of dust be orbiting the star? Unlikely, since KIC 8462852 is not a young star and the majority of its dust should be gone. Other possible, but less likely, causes include a large asteroid field, cometary fragment clouds, or colliding planets. The one possibility no one can yet discount is the existence of some form of Dyson’s Sphere.

Stages of civilization:

In 1962, Nikolai Kardashev, a Russian astrophysicist, developed a scale to guide extraterrestrial researchers in classifying the technology level of any society they might find. He has three types of civilizations. Later astronomers added two more. The scale is based upon how much energy the civilization has at its disposal. Type I is assigned to species who have been able to harness much of the energy that is available from a neighboring star. Type II can harness the power of their entire star, move stars to their vicinity for use, and travel within its galaxy. Type III would tap into galactic scale energies and may roam between galaxies. Type IV civilizations would be able to access the energy content of the entire universe, could live inside black holes and would be seen as gods by lesser civilizations. Type V civilizations not only control our universe but have access to the multiverse. This type of society would be god. Today, Earth is described as a puny type 0 civilization (we are just beginning to tap the full potential of our planet).

A type II civilization would have the wherewithal to build a Dyson’s Sphere. This theoretical structure would encompass a planet’s star and consume most of the material (planets, comets, asteroids) orbiting the star. The occupants would live on the inside surface of the hollow sphere. A Dyson’s Sphere is designed to collect almost all the star’s energy, but would not have to be solid; it could be a lattice with gaps. This type of structure could explain the weird dimming of KIC 8462852, especially if it was not yet completed. There could be gaps in its structure producing both the deep dimming seen and the other baffling irregular dimming events.

The search has begun:

At the end of October, the Allen Telescope Array, located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in California, began looking at KIC 8462852 for possible radio signals. The SETI Institute operates the Allen Array and built it to specifically search for alien intelligence. It will be months before we know if signals are detected, and other radio telescopes will be looking as well. Even if we do not receive a radio signal, that will not rule out an artificially created structure. KIC 8462852 is 1500 light-years from Earth. Anything we hear today would have been transmitted 1500 years ago. The structure could be a relic from a long dead society. Or, perhaps they discovered a different method of communication that does not involve radio waves.

No matter the outcome, the enigma of KIC 8462852 will remain for years, feeding speculation and allowing us to dream that we are not alone in this universe.

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