A star known by the unassuming name of KIC 8462852 in the constellation Cygnus has been raising eyebrows both in and outside of the scientific community for the past year. In 2015 a team of astronomers announced that the star underwent a series of very brief, non-periodic dimming events while it was being monitored by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, and no one could quite figure out what caused them. A new study from Carnegie’s Josh Simon and Caltech’s Ben Montet has deepened the mystery.
These observations have gotten intense interest because one possibility is that it could be evidence of a mega-advanced alien civilization
Simon and Montet’s findings caused a stir in August, when they were posted on a preprint server while their paper was being reviewed. Now their work is now accepted for publication by The Astrophysical Journal.
The researchers analyzed further Kepler observations of the puzzling star and showed that in addition to its rapid unexplained brightness changes, the star also faded slowly and steadily during the four years it was watched by Kepler.
Speculation to explain KIC 8462852’s dips in brightness has ranged from an unusually large group of comets orbiting the star to an alien megastructure. In general, stars can appear to dim because a solid object like a planet or a cloud of dust and gas passes between it and the observer, eclipsing and effectively dimming its brightness for a time. But the erratic pattern of abrupt fading and re-brightening in KIC 8462852 is unlike that seen for any other star.
Spurred by a controversial claim that the star’s brightness gradually decreased by 14 percent from 1890 to 1989, Montet and Simon decided to investigate its behavior in a series of Kepler calibration images that had not previously been used for scientific measurements.
This artist’s conception shows a star behind a shattered comet. One of the theories for KIC 8462852’s unusual dimming is the presence of debris from a collision or breakup of a planet or comet in the star’s system, creating a short-term cloud that blocks some starlight. Image is courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.
“We thought that these data could confirm or refute the star’s long-term fading, and hopefully clarify what was causing the extraordinary dimming events observed in KIC 8462852,” explained Simon.
Simon and Montet found that, over the first three years of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 dimmed by almost 1 percent. Its brightness then dropped by an extraordinary 2 percent over just six months, remaining at about that level for the final six months of the mission.
The pair then compared this with more than 500 similar stars observed by Kepler and found thata small fraction of them showed fading similar to that seen in KIC 8462852 over the first three years of Kepler images. However, none exhibited such a dramatic dimming in just six months, or a total change in brightness of 3 percent.
“The steady brightness change in KIC 8462852 is pretty astounding,” said Montet. “Our highly accurate measurements over four years demonstrate that the star really is getting fainter with time. It is unprecedented for this type of star to slowly fade for years, and we don’t see anything else like it in the Kepler data.”
“This star was already completely unique because of its sporadic dimming episodes. But now we see that it has other features that are just as strange, both slowly dimming for almost three years and then suddenly getting fainter much more rapidly,” Simon added.
Astronomers were already running short of good ideas to account for the dips in KIC 8462852’s brightness, and the new results will make that task even harder. Simon and Montet think that the best proposal so far for explaining the star’s drastic six month dimming might be a collision or breakup of a planet or comet in the star’s system, creating a short-term cloud of dust and debris that blocks some starlight. However, this wouldn’t explain the longer-term dimming observed during the first three years of Kepler and suggested by measurements of the star dating back to the nineteenth century.
“It’s a big challenge to come up with a good explanation for a star doing three different things that have never been seen before,” Montet said. “But these observations will provide an important clue to solving the mystery of KIC 8462852.”
Abstract – KIC 8462852 Faded Throughout the Kepler Mission
KIC 8462852 is a superficially ordinary main sequence F star for which Kepler detected an unusual series of brief dimming events. We obtain accurate relative photometry of KIC 8462852 from the Kepler full frame images, finding that the brightness of KIC 8462852 monotonically decreased over the four years it was observed by Kepler. Over the first ~1000 days, KIC 8462852 faded approximately linearly at a rate of 0.341 +/- 0.041%/yr, for a total decline of 0.9%. KIC 8462852 then dimmed much more rapidly in the next ~200 days, with its flux dropping by more than 2%. For the final ~200 days of Kepler photometry the magnitude remained approximately constant, although the data are also consistent with the decline rate measured for the first 2.7 yr. Of a sample of 193 nearby comparison stars and 355 stars with similar stellar parameters, none exhibit the rapid decline by 2% or the cumulative fading by 3% of KIC 8462852. Moreover, of these comparison stars, only one changes brightness as quickly as the 0.341%/yr measured for KIC 8462852 during the first three years of the Kepler mission. We examine whether the rapid decline could be caused by a cloud of transiting circumstellar material, finding while such a cloud could evade detection in sub-mm observations, the transit ingress and duration cannot be explained by a simple cloud model. Moreover, this model cannot account for the observed longer-term dimming. No known or proposed stellar phenomena can fully explain all aspects of the observed light curve.
SOURCES- Arxiv, Carnegie Science