Do Comets Explain Mystery Star’s Bizarre Behavior?

The story of KIC 8462852 appears far from over. You’ll recall NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when its light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Models to explain its erratic behavior were so lacking that some considered the possibility that alien megastructures built to capture sunlight around the host star (think Dyson Spheres) might be the cause.

But a search using the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array for two weeks in October detected no significant radio signals or other signs of intelligent life emanating from the star’s vicinity. Something had passed in front of the star and blocked its light, but what?

The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Shattered comets and asteroids were also suggested as possible explanations — dust and ground-up rock would be at the right temperature to glow in the infrared — but Kepler could only observe in visible light where any debris would be invisible or swamped by the light of the star. So researchers looked through older observations made in 2010 by the  Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. Unfortunately, WISE observed the star before the strange variations were seen and therefore before any putative dust-busting collisions.

Not to be stymied, astronomers next checked out the data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which like WISE, is optimized for infrared light.  Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 much more recently in 2015.

“Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3)  imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope in January 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

I’d love to report that Spitzer tracked down glowing dust but no, it also came up empty-handed. This makes the idea of an asteroidal smash-up very unlikely, but not one involving comets according to Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University (Ames) who led the new study. Marengo proposes that cold comets are responsible. Picture a family of comets traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star with a very large comet at the head of the pack responsible for the big fading seen by Kepler in 2011. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of various-sized fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light. By 2015, the comets would have moved even farther away on their long orbital journey, leaving no detectable infrared excess.

“This is a very strange star,” said Marengo. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.'”

Clearly, more long-term observations are needed. And frankly, I’m still puzzled why cold or less active comets might still not be detected by their glowing dust. But let’s assume for a moment the the comet idea is correct. If so, we should expect to see similar dips in KIC 8462852’s light as the comet swarm swings around again.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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