Tabby’s star exhibits two unique and very difficult to understand behaviors: the short-term”dips” in brightness (of up to 22%) and long-term brightness variations on years-to-centuries timescales.
Since the Kepler mission stopped observing it, it seems to have continued its slow decline in brightness over the past few years, and that dimming does not seem to be due to solid objects. But we still don’t have any information about what’s responsible for the dips because we hadn’t been able to see one happening in real time.
But now, thanks to the generous support of our Kickstarter backers, Tabby’s team has been able to pay for year-long monitoring of the star with the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network to “catch it in the act” of dipping again so we can study what’s going on.
And in May, it finally happened (when by amazing coincidence I [Jason Wright] just happened to be at the Breakthrough Listen Lab at UC Berkeley during my sabbatical):
They were hoping that once we finally caught a dip happening in real time we could see if the dips were the same depth at all wavelengths. If they were nearly the same, this would suggest that the cause was something opaque, like a disk or (whispering) alien megastructures.
The long-term dimming doesn’t seem to be the same at all wavelengths, which suggests it’s being caused by something like ordinary astronomical dust, but that doesn’t tell us what’s causing the dips (which are what got everyone excited in the first place).
Eva Bodman has done a lot of work to characterize how much deeper the dips are at blue wavelengths than red ones. If there were opaque objects blocking our view of the light, the star should get equally dim at all wavelengths. Instead, Eva finds that the blue (B) dips are much deeper—about twice as deep—as they are when we look at infrared wavelengths.
The dips are not caused by opaque macroscopic objects (like megastructures or planets or stars) but by clouds of very small particles of dust (less than 1 micron in typical size). We can also say that these clouds are mostly transparent (“optically thin” in astrophysics parlance).
It looks like there is no additional ionized gas accompanying the dust.
Most likely in solar system dust or exocomets
Wyatt et al. and Metzger at al. have developed models involving circumstellar material like exocomets that seem to be consistent with the data we have. Wyatt et al. and Foukal have developed models where the star itself is getting dimmer that also seem supported. Both classes of model are now at the top of my list, though I [Jason Wright] still see major problems with both.
Hypotheses invoking intervening material like an interstellar cloud, seem to have taken a blow, though I [Jason Wright] still want to understand better if they are really ruled out by the lack of gas in the spectra, and whether circumstellar material like exocomets is similarly ruled out. I’m [Jason Wright] still fond of this solution, but it has gone down a notch in light of the new data.
I think my black hole disk hypothesis is still a dark horse in this race.
And the instrumental effects and alien megastructures hypotheses have been put to bed.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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