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Astronomers Puzzle Over Most Mysterious Star In The Galaxy

| 15 Oct 2015 21:50

Scientists are investigating an unusual star surrounded by what could be comets... or alien life.

We've covered a ton of bizarre interstellar phenomenon at The Escapist, be it enormous stars, ancient stars, or even zombie stars. We have a pretty good handle on stars at this point, is what I'm saying. So why are astronomers so fascinated by one spotted between the Cygnus and Lyra constellations? Simple - we've never seen anything like it. This mature star is surrounded by obscenely high volumes of matter that few current explanations account for. It even has intelligent astronomers dropping the "aliens" phrase like we're guest stars on the History Channel.

"We'd never seen anything like this star," Yale postdoc Tabetha Boyajian said. "It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out."

First uncovered in 2011 by Kepler's "citizen scientist" program Planet Hunters, this star looked strange right from the start. Its light pattern was distict from 150,000 nearly stars, filled with inconsistent dips that implied its photons were being blocked by something. Which is fairly normal for a young star surrounded by matter, but this one had matured to the point where only a few planets should crop up, if anything.

Boyajian recently published a paper describing the phenomenon and offering possible explanations. After covering everything from defective instruments to a massive asteroid impact, only one explanation holds up to scrutiny: Another star passed through the system and left a trail of comets behind. Even so, that's exceedingly rare, creating a specific light pattern that hasn't been replicated across 150,000 stars. Which is where alien life comes in.

"When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked," Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright explained. "Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build."

Whether the debris could belong to giant alien spacecraft or space junk like satellites isn't clear. But it's enough for the SETI Research Center to put together a proposal to check for unusual radio waves in the region. The first observations would occur in January, and if they seem to come from technological sources, this star could get even more attention. "If we saw something exciting, we could ask the director for special allotted time on [New Mexico's "Very Large Array"]," Wright said. "And in that case, we'd be asking to go on right away."

Perhaps this will turn out to be comets, space junk, or signs of an alien civilization. Either way, it's always wonderful to find new mysteries that stump even seasoned astronomers.

Source: The Atlantic

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