SETI institute scientists have turned their radio telescopes to listen to a star that many hope might hold signs of intelligent alien life -- but so far, no one is sending any signals our way.
A few weeks ago, the Kepler Space Telescope detected a star that was acting really strange. The light from the star called KIC 8462852, which is about 1,500 light years away, doesn't reach Earth consistently -- it dips. And instead of dimming at regular intervals, which would indicate the passing of a planet that orbits the star, the light dips irregularly.
Some of the scientists working on the available data posited that this could maybe possibly sort of be an indication of an alien civilization. But even the scientists who presented this idea were really skeptical of it. Aliens should always be your last guess, because, well, aliens.
The idea here is that the irregular dimming of the star's light might be due to some kind of massive, alien-made structure -- like the Dyson Sphere once dreamed up by physicist Freeman Dyson, which would theoretically surround a distant star to collect energy from it.
While a lot of the "alien megastructure" buzz was pure hype, the fact remains that scientists are super interested in finding out what's going on with this weird star. And hey, it could be aliens. You never know! We want to believe.
Luckily, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute is a thing that exists. And they have big, powerful radio telescopes. They turned the Allen Telescope Array -- a set of 42 antennas located near San Francisco -- towards KIC 8462852, informally known as Tabby's Star. They looked out for narrow-band radio waves, the likes of which might be sent as a hailing signal, as well as for the kind of broad-band signals that might be created inadvertently by spaceships and the like.
So far, we've got nothing. But it's not like scientists are surprised.
“The history of astronomy tells us that every time we thought we had found a phenomenon due to the activities of extraterrestrials, we were wrong,” SETI astronomer Seth Shostak said in a statement. “But although it’s quite likely that this star’s strange behavior is due to nature, not aliens, it’s only prudent to check such things out.”
The SETI astronomers will keep listening to the mysterious star. But now that aliens seem (even more) unlikely, we're left with the big and beautiful question of what exactly makes Tabby's Star behave so strangely.