Illustration: ISTOCK
something strange out there ... - Illustration: ISTOCK

Sometime around 737 AD, in the luminous constellation Cygnus, in the vicinity of a star known as KIC 8462852, something very strange happened. No one knows what. Here on Earth, 1,280 light years away, the mystery has only deepened as scientists have watched it unfold.

The star in question is very odd indeed. Every once in a while, the light it emits dims perceptibly, sometimes by an astonishing amount. Ordinarily, such dimming might suggest a passing planet. In this case, the sheer magnitude of the dip, and its irregular pattern, would seem to rule out anything so mundane.

In mid-May, the star began dimming again. On social media, scientists sent out an alert -- “This is not a drill,” as one put it -- thereby activating a global network of enthusiasts (professional and otherwise) to point their telescopes, analyze new data and try to make some sense of what has been called “one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy.”

Plenty of explanations for this nebular oddity have been mooted. An eccentric mass of comets? Vast dust clouds? Maybe a huge planet with a ring system surrounded by “a swarm of Trojan objects”? None are quite satisfactory.

Another theory -- perhaps you’ve heard? -- is that it’s the work of an alien civilization. The idea is that an advanced race of extraterrestrials might be using technology (very large technology) to capture energy from the star, or conduct cosmic business of some other kind. It’s not an especially likely scenario. But it can’t be ruled out yet, either. Obviously, it would be awesome.

Even if the answer turns out to be something much more boring, the endeavor is itself cause for optimism. The star’s abnormalities were first discovered by amateurs sifting through data from the Kepler space telescope online. They alerted Tabetha Boyajian, now an astronomer at Louisiana State University, and she and a team published a study ruling out most normal explanations. (Thus KIC 8462852 became known as “Tabby’s Star.”) She has since started a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $100,000 to buy time on a network of telescopes to monitor the star more intensely.

Now this global volunteer network will begin digging through the latest data, searching for further clues. Wish them well. For all the flaws of social media, and digital life generally, every once in a while its true promise announces itself. This seems like one of those times: Astronomers and amateurs, working in tandem across vast distances, in the common pursuit of knowledge about the universe.

- Bloomberg


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