NASA’s Plans to Explore Europa and Other “Ocean Worlds”

Earlier this week, NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. Running from Monday to Wednesday – February 27th to March 1st – the purpose of this workshop was to present NASA’s plans for the future of space exploration to the international community. In the course of the many presentations, speeches and panel discussions, many interesting proposals were shared.

Among them were two presentations that outlined NASA’s plan for the exploration of Jupiter’s moon Europa and other icy moons. In the coming decades, NASA hopes to send probes to these moons to investigate the oceans that lie beneath theirs surfaces, which many believe could be home to extra-terrestrial life. With missions to the “ocean worlds” of the Solar System, we may finally come to discover life beyond Earth.

The first of the two meetings took place on the morning of Monday, Feb. 27th, and was titled “Exploration Pathways for Europa after initial In-Situ Analyses for Biosignatures“. In the course of the presentation, Kevin Peter Hand – the Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – shared findings from a report prepared by the 2016 Europa Lander Science Definition Team.

Artist’s rendering of a potential future mission to land a robotic probe on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This report was drafted by NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) in response to a congressional directive to begin a pre-Phase A study to assess the scientific value and engineering design of a Europa lander mission. These studies, which are known as Science Definition Team (SDT) reports, are routinely conducted long before missions are mounted in order to gain an understanding of the types of challenges it will face, and what the payoffs will be.

In addition to being the co-chair of the Science Definition Team, Hand also served as head of the project science team, which included members from the JPL and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The report he and his colleagues prepared was finalized and issued to NASA on February 7th, 2017, and outlined several objectives for scientific study.

As was indicated during the course of the presentation, these objectives were threefold. The first would involve searching for biosignatures and signs of life through analyses of Europa’s surface and near-subsurface material. The second would be to conduct in-situ analyses to characterize the composition of non-ice near-subsurface material, and determine the proximity of liquid water and recently-erupted material near the lander’s location.

The third and final goal would be to characterize the surface and subsurface properties and what dynamic processes are responsible for shaping them, in support for future exploration missions. As Hand explained, these objectives are closely intertwined:

“Were biosignatures to be found in the surface material, direct access to, and exploration of, Europa’s ocean and liquid water environments would be a high priority goal for the astrobiological investigation of our Solar System. Europa’s ocean would harbor the potential for the study of an extant ecosystem, likely representing a second, independent origin of life in our own solar system. Subsequent exploration would require robotic vehicles and instrumentation capable of accessing the habitable liquid water regions in Europa to enable the study of the ecosystem and organisms.”

Artist’s impression of a hypothetical ocean cryobot (a robot capable of penetrating water ice) in Europa. Credit: NASA

In other words, if the lander mission detected signs of life within Europa’s ice sheet, and from material churned up from beneath by resurfacing events, then future missions – most likely involving robotic submarines – would definitely be mounted. The report also states that any finds that are indicative of life would mean that planetary protections would be a major requirement for any future mission, to avoid the possibility of contamination.

But of course, Hand also admitted that there is a chance the lander will find no signs of life. If so, Hand indicated that future missions would be tasked with gaining “a better understanding of the fundamental geological and geophysical process on Europa, and how they modulate exchange of material with Europa’s ocean.” On the other hand, he claimed that even a null-result (i.e. no signs of life anywhere) would still be a major scientific find.

Ever since the Voyager probes first detected possible signs of an interior ocean on Europa, scientists have dreamed of the day when a  mission might be possible to explore the interior of this mysterious moon. To be able to determine that life does not exist there could no less significant that finding life, in that both would help us learn more about life in our Solar System.

The Science Definition Team’s report will also be the subject of a townhall meeting at the 2017 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) – which will be taking place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodlands, Texas. The second event will be on April 23rd at the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) held in Mesa, Arizona. Click here to read the full report.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is another popular destination for proposed missions since it is believed to potentially host extra-terrestrial life. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The second presentation, titled “Roadmaps to Ocean Worlds” took place later on Monday, Feb. 27th. This presentation was put on by members of the the Roadmaps to Ocean Worlds (ROW) team, which is chaired by Dr. Amandra Hendrix – a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Arizona – and Dr. Terry Hurford, a research assistant from NASA’s Science and Exploration Directorate (SED).

As a specialist in UV spectroscopy of planetary surfaces, Dr. Hendrix has collaborated with many NASA missions to explore icy bodies in the Solar System – including the Galileo and Cassini probes and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Dr. Hurford, meanwhile, specializes in the geology and geophysics of icy satellites, as well as the effects orbital dynamics and tidal stresses have on their interior structures.

Founded in 2016 by NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), ROW was tasked with laying the groundwork for a mission that will explore “ocean worlds” in the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System. During the course of the presentation, Hendrix and Hurford laid out the findings from the ROW report, which was completed in January of 2017.

As they state in this report, “we define an ‘ocean world’ as a body with a current liquid ocean (not necessarily global). All bodies in our solar system that plausibly can have or are known to have an ocean will be considered as part of this document. The Earth is a well-studied ocean world that can be used as a reference (“ground truth”) and point of comparison.”

Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials. The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

By this definition, bodies like Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Enceladus would all be viable targets for exploration. These worlds are all known to have subsurface oceans, and there has been compelling evidence in the past few decades that point towards the presence of organic molecules and prebiotic chemistry there as well. Triton, Pluto, Ceres and Dione are all mentioned as candidate ocean worlds based on what we know of them.

Titan also received special mention in the course of the presentation. In addition to having an interior ocean, it has even been ventured that extremophile methanogenic lifeforms could exist on its surface:

“Although Titan possesses a large subsurface ocean, it also has an abundant supply of a wide range of organic species and surface liquids, which are readily accessible and could harbor more exotic forms of life. Furthermore, Titan may have transient surface liquid water such as impact melt pools and fresh cryovolcanic flows in contact with both solid and liquid surface organics. These environments present unique and important locations for investigating prebiotic chemistry, and potentially, the first steps towards life.”

Ultimately, the ROW’s pursuit of life on “ocean worlds” consists of four main goals. These include identifying ocean worlds in the solar system, which would mean determining which of the worlds and candidate worlds would be well-suited to study. The second is to characterize the nature of these oceans, which would include determining the properties of the ice shell and liquid ocean, and what drives fluid motion in them.

Artist’s conception of the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft on Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit: NASA

The third sub-goal involves determining if these oceans have the necessary energy and prebiotic chemistry to support life. And the fourth and final goal would be to determine how life might exist in them – i.e. whether it takes the form of extremophile bacteria and tiny organisms, or more complex creatures. Hendrix and Hurford also covered the kind of technological advances that will be needed for such missions to happen.

Naturally, any such mission would require the development of power sources and energy storage systems that would be suitable for cryogenic environments. Autonomous systems for pinpoint landing and technologies for aerial or landed mobility would also be needed. Planetary protection technologies would be necessary to prevent contamination, and electronic/mechanical systems that can survive in an ocean world environment too,

While these presentations are merely proposals of what could happen in the coming decades, they are still exciting to hear about. If nothing else, they show how NASA and other space agencies are actively collaborating with scientific institutions around the world to push the boundaries of knowledge and exploration. And in the coming decades, they hope to make some substantial leaps.

If all goes well, and exploration missions to Europa and other icy moons are allowed to go forward, the benefits could be immeasurable. In addition to the possibility of finding life beyond Earth, we will come to learn a great deal about our Solar System, and no doubt learn something more about humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Further Reading: NASA, USRA, USRA (2)

Ceres Provides First Detection Of Life’s Building Blocks In Asteroid Belt

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been poking around Ceres since it first established orbit in March of 2015. In that time, the mission has sent back a steam of images of the minor planet, and with a level of resolution that was previously impossible. Because of this, a lot of interesting revelations have been made about Ceres’ composition and surface features (like its many “bright spots“).

In what is sure to be the most surprising find yet, the Dawn spacecraft has revealed that Ceres may actually possess the ingredients for life. Using data from the Dawn spacecraft’s Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS), an international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of organic molecules on Ceres – a find which could indicate that it has conditions favorable to life.

These findings – which were detailed in a study titled Localized aliphatic organic material on the surface of Ceres” – appeared in the Feb. 17th, 2017, issue of Science. For the sake of their study, the international team of researchers – which was led by Maria Cristina de Sanctis from the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome, Italy – showed how Dawn sensor data pointed towards the presence of aliphatic compounds on the surface.

Enhanced color-composite image from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, showing the area around Ernutet Crater on Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

Aliphatics are a type of organic compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. The least complex aliphatic is methane, which has been detected in many locations across the Solar System – including in the Martian atmosphere and in both liquid and gaseous form on Saturn’s moon Titan.

From their study, Dr. de Sanctis and her colleagues determined that spectral data obtained by the VIMS instrument corresponded to the presence of these hydrocarbons in a region outside of the Ernutet crater. This crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres, measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter. The aliphatic compounds which were detected were localized in a roughly 1000 square kilometers region around it.

The team ruled out the possibility that these organic molecules were deposited from an external source – such as a comet or carbonaceous chondrite asteroid. While both have been shown to contain organic molecules in their interior in the past, the largest concentrations on Ceres were distributed discontinuously across the southwest floor and rim of the Ernutet crater and onto an older, highly degraded crater.

In addition, other organic-rich areas were spotted being are scattered to the northwest of the crater. As Dr.  Maria Cristina De Sanctis told Universe Today via email:

“The composition that we see on Ceres is similar to some meteorites that has organics and thus we searched for this material. We considered both endogenous and exogenous origin, but the last one seems less likely due to several reasons including the larger abundance observed on Ceres with respect the meteorites.”

Dawn spacecraft data, showing the organics absorption band (warmer colors indicate highest concentrations). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

Instead, they considered the possibility that they organic molecules were endogenous in origin. In the past, surveys have shown evidence of hydrothermal activity on Ceres, which included signs of surface renewal and fluid mobility. Combined with other surveys that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts, this all points towards Ceres having an environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.

“The overall composition of Ceres can favor the pre-biotic chemistry,” said De Sanctis. “Ceres has water ice and minerals (carbonates and phyllosilicates) derived  from pervasive aqueous  alteration of rocks. It has also material that we think is formed in hydrothermal environments.  All these information indicate condition not hostel to biotic molecules.”

These findings are certainly significant in helping to determine if life could exist on Ceres – in a way that is similar to Europa and Enceladus, locked away beneath its icy mantle. But given that Ceres is believed to have originated 4.5 billion years ago (when the Solar System was still in the process of formation), this study is also significant in that it can shed light on the origin, evolution, and distribution of organic life in our the Solar System.

Other members of the research team include researchers from the department of Earth Planetary and Space Sciences at the University of California, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee, the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Further Reading: ScienceMag, SwRI

The Search Is On For Alien Signals Around Tabby’s Star


There’s a remote chance that inexplicable light variations in a star in the Northern Cross may be caused by the works of an alien civilization.

1,480 light years from Earth twinkles one of the greatest mysteries of recent times.  There in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, you’ll find a dim, ordinary-looking point of light with an innocent sounding name — Tabby’s Star.  Named for Louisiana State University astronomer  Tabetha Boyajian, who was the lead author on a paper about its behavior, this star has so confounded astronomers with its unpredictable ups and downs in its brightness, they’ve gone to war on the object, drilling down on it with everything from the Hubble to the monster 393.7-inch (10-meter) Keck Telescope in Hawaii. Continue reading “The Search Is On For Alien Signals Around Tabby’s Star”

Why Haven’t We Found Any Aliens Yet?

Many years ago, Carl Sagan predicted there could be as many as 10,000 advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

After nearly 60 years of searching without success, a growing list of scientists believe life on Earth only came about because of a lucky series of evolutionary accidents, a long list of improbable events that just happened to come together at the right time and will never be repeated.

Is it possible they are right and we are all there is?

Highly unlikely.

Earth is a typical rocky planet, in an average solar system, nestled in the spiral arm of an ordinary galaxy. All the events and elements that came together to build our world could happen almost everywhere throughout the galaxy and there should be nothing unusual about the evolution of life on this planet or any others.

In a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars, the law of averages dictates that intelligent life must exist somewhere.

So, why haven’t we found it yet?

There could be many reasons.

Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Planets everywhere. So where are the aliens? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Looking for a radio signal in a galaxy of over 400 billion worlds across 100,000 light years and billions of radio frequencies makes the proverbial needle in a haystack sound easy. Imagine you are driving home, your spouse in one car and you in the other. There’s a thick fog making visual confirmation impossible and no cell phone reception. Luckily, a week ago you had a 250 channel CB installed in both cars. Unfortunately, you forgot to agree on a broadcast channel. To chat, the two CBs would have to be on at the same time and you’d need to independently search every channel, listen, broadcast, then move to the next, hoping to get lucky enough to land on the same channel.

What are the odds that would happen? Not very good. Multiply this scenario one hundred billion times and you have some idea of the challenges facing SETI. To add to that, advanced civilizations probably only stay radio active for a relatively short time in their development as they develop more sophisticated technology. Searching the radio spectrum would require looking at one frequency 24/7 for years to be sure you weren’t missing something and telescope time is far too expensive for that. While you were sitting on that single frequency, 20 extraterrestrial signals could have come in on other channels and you’d never know it.

The Fermi Paradox is used by many skeptics as the holy grail when trying to prove there is nobody out there. Fermi theorized that a galaxy with so much potential for life must be full of extraterrestrials. He noted that since the majority of stars are considerably older than our sun, extraterrestrials could be millions of years more advanced than us. Fermi calculated that even at sub light speed one of those civilizations should have colonized the galaxy by now and we would have seen evidence of it.

There is however a problem with that logic.

In 50,000 years, humans will probably look a little different than people do now. In 10 million years, considerably different. Imagine a civilization completely different from us from the start and 10 million years more advanced. We might not even be able to recognize them as life forms, let alone see any evidence of their existence.

Arthur C. Clarke once said advanced extraterrestrials would probably be indistinguishable to us from magic. Their communications would be like listening for an answer to drumbeats and getting only silence while the ether around you is filled with more information in a second than one could utter in a lifetime. There could be the alien equivalent of the super bowl going on a few light years away and we would probably not even have a clue.

The distances in our galaxy are incredibly vast. Current spacecraft travel about 20 times faster than the speed of a bullet. While that sounds fast, at that speed it would take a spacecraft 75,000 years to travel to our nearest star only 4 light years away. Light years are a measure of distance so if we could speed that ship up to 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/second), it would take 4 years to reach that same star.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages.  Credit: Unites States National Science Foundation
The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: Unites States National Science Foundation

Looking at a star 1,000 light years away is like being in a time machine. You are not seeing it as it is now, but one thousand years ago. Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across with over 200 billion stars. Current theory suggests there may be as many as one billion earth-like planets in our galaxy. If just one tenth of those had some kind of life, that would leave us with about 100 million worlds harboring one celled creatures or better.

If just the tiniest fraction of them, (one one hundred thousandth) managed to spawn an advanced race of beings, there could be as many as 1,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. Regardless of whether you consider that a lot or a little, that would mean one technically advanced alien society exists for every hundred million stars. Our nearest extraterrestrial neighbor might be very, very far away. In the movies, the speculative fiction of warp speed, hyper drive and worm holes enable spaceships to travel faster than the speed of light and breach those distances fairly easily. But if the physics of this turn out to be impossible, then even the nearest alien civilizations may find interstellar travel very difficult and quite undesirable.

Another reason extraterrestrials may have made themselves scarce could be that the galaxy is jam packed with all sorts of weird beings and wondrous destinations. In this scenario why would advanced forms of life want to come here? There are probably so many more interesting places to visit. It would be like hunting for an exotic bird and not even giving the ant hill below your feet a second look.

Stephen Hawking has said, “I believe extraterrestrial life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life less so. Some say it has yet to appear on Earth.”

Many think once a civilization achieves radio, it has a short window of but a few hundred years before it starts to integrate artificial intelligence into its own biology. Machines do everything so much easier, with far less risk and are immortal. It is entirely possible any aliens we hear from will have morphed into something more machine like than biological.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for simultaneous surveys undertaken for SETI projects (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

There has been a push lately for SETI to expand its operations from just passively listening, to actively broadcasting messages into the cosmos. One of the smartest men on the planet, Stephen Hawking, doesn’t think that’s a good idea. He believes that our messages might attract unwanted attention from unsavory creatures looking to blast us back into the stone age. He uses what happened to the Native Americans when they first encountered Columbus as an example. Alien races may have had to endure the same aggressive survival of the fittest culture. If they are at least as smart as Stephen Hawking, then everyone out there could be listening and nobody is broadcasting for fear of attracting the equivalent of Darth Vader and the Evil Empire to their shores.

Or, maybe there is a signal on its way right now, having traveled thousand of years, arriving next week, month or year.
Many scientists like Paul Davies, think SETI needs to start thinking more out of the box in its search methods. He advocates analyzing places in our own solar system like the moon, planets, asteroids and the Earth for evidence that aliens have passed this way. We should also be open to the possibility that we have already received a message from the stars and don’t recognize it because it arrived by something other than radio. Physist Vladimir Charbak thinks that life may have been spread throughout the galaxy by intelligent design and there may actually be evidence of this within our own DNA just waiting to be discovered.

Another reason we have yet to detect alien life could be there is nothing out there to find. Or to put it another way, we are the only game in town. To best answer that question, ask yourself, does this seem logical? There is a very good chance that one or more worlds just in our own solar system harbor some form of life. In a galaxy with as many as one billion or more potentially habitable planets, one could almost guarantee many of them will host life. There may potentially be hundreds of millions of worlds with living things on them. Does it make sense that in all that habitable real estate we are the only race to evolve into an intelligent species?

Extraterrestrials in the 1979 movie "Close Encounters of the Third King." Credit: Columbia Pictures / Alien Wiki
Extraterrestrials in the 1979 movie “Close Encounters of the Third King.” Credit: Columbia Pictures / Alien Wiki

We humans tend to think of things with a distinctly anthropomorphic spin. Notions like, life needs water, oxygen and is based on carbon. Or, an advanced alien race would use radio and their signals should repeat. In popular culture, extraterrestrials portrayed in movies look remotely like us. This is done so we can recognize emotions and that fills movie theaters. I can remember aliens portrayed in the classic science fiction television show, “The Outer Limits” as energy balls, dust motes and tumbleweeds. They weren’t the most popular episodes, but the reality is that those portrayals are probably closer to the truth than ET and his heart lamp. Extraterrestrials will probably be as different from us as we are from a blade of grass and their motivations a complete mystery. It is very possible that the reason we haven’t found them yet is one that completely eludes our understanding at this point.

So where does that leave us?

Time and patience.

If you compare the 4.5 billion year old earth to a 24 hour clock, mankind doesn’t appear until a little over a minute before midnight. Take the almost sixty years we have been looking for extraterrestrials and project that on the same clock, it probably represents only about 20 or 30 seconds worth of searching for intelligent beings who may have been around millions and perhaps billions of years longer than we have. Our passage through time is just a tiny almost imperceptible blip when compared to the evolution of our galaxy.

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)
Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

New, very powerful listening devices will be coming into operation soon as well as sophisticated instruments that will be able to analyze exoplanets atmospheres to look for hints of life. SETI will expand into new areas and scientists will be able to devote a lot more telescope time to the search as the newly funded (100MM) Project Breakthough Listen kicks into high gear. It will cover 10 times more of the sky and the entire 1-10GHz radio spectrum. There will be more powerful optical and infrared searches and it is estimated the project will generate in a day as much data as SETI produced in an entire year. Recently, Project Breakthrough Starshot was announced as well. Seeded by another 100MM by Russian Billionaire, Yuri Milner, this ambitious project seeks to send a tiny light propelled robotic spacecraft to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Stephen Hawking thinks this can be accomplished within the next generation and that new technology would allow a journey of only 20 years.

SETI scientist Nathalie Cabrol thinks its also time for a new approach to SETI’s search, a reboot if you will. She feels that “SETI’s vision has been constrained by whether ET has technology that resembles or thinks like us. She feels that the search, so far, has in essence been a search for ourselves. Electromagnetic fingerprints of radio transmitions carry a strong like us assumption”. She proposes involving a lot more disciplines in a redesign of the search. Astrobiology, life sciences, geoscience, cognitive science and mathematics among others. Her plan is to invite the research community to help craft a new scientific roadmap for SETI that very well may redefine the meaning of life and the cosmic search for new forms of it.

Some experts say we won’t see evidence of extraterrestrials for another 1500 years. That’s the time it will take for our TV and radio signals to have reached enough stars and have the best chance to be discovered.

In my opinion, I think highly advanced extraterrestrial societies already know we’re here and in about 10-15 years we’ll start getting some of the answers we’ve been looking for.

Tabby’s Star Megastructure Mystery Continues To Intrigue

Last fall, astronomers were surprised when the Kepler mission reported some anomalous readings from KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star). After noticing a strange and sudden drop in brightness, speculation began as to what could be causing it – with some going so far as to suggest that it was an alien megastructure. Naturally, the speculation didn’t last long, as further observations revealed no signs of intelligent life or artificial structures.

But the mystery of the strange dimming has not gone away. What’s more, in a paper posted this past Friday to arXiv, Benjamin T. Montet and Joshua D. Simon (astronomers from the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech and the Carnegie Institute of Science, respectively) have shown how an analysis of the star’s long-term behavior has only deepened the mystery further.

To recap, dips in brightness are quite common when observing distant stars. In fact, this is one of the primary techniques employed by the Kepler mission and other telescopes to determine if planets are orbiting a star (known as Transit Method). However, the “light curve” of Tabby’s Star – named after the lead author of the study that first detailed the phenomena (Tabetha S. Boyajian) – was particularly pronounced and unusual.

Freeman Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com
Freeman Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com

According to the study, the star would experience a ~20% dip in brightness, which would last for between 5 and 80 days. This was not consistent with a transitting planet, and Boyajian and her colleagues hypothesized that it was due to a swarm of cold, dusty comet fragments in a highly eccentric orbit accounted for the dimming.

However, others speculated that it could be the result of an alien megastructure known as Dyson Sphere (or Swarm), a series of structures that encompass a star in whole or in part. However, the SETI Institute quickly weighed in and indicated that radio reconnaissance of KIC 8462852 found no evidence of technology-related radio signals from the star.

Other suggestions were made as well, but as Dr. Simon of the Carnegie Institute of Science explained via email, they fell short. “Because the brief dimming events identified by Boyajian et al. were unprecedented, they sparked a wide range of ideas to explain them,” he said. “So far, none of the proposals have been very compelling – in general, they can explain some of the behavior of KIC 8462852, but not all of it.”

To put the observations made last Fall into a larger context, Montet and Simon decided to examine the full-frame photometeric images of KIC 8462852 obtained by Kepler over the last four years.  What they found was that the total brightness of the star had been diminishing quite astonishingly during that time, a fact which only deepens the mystery of the star’s light curve.

Photometry of KIC8462852 as measured by Kepler data. The analysis reveals a slow but steady decrease in the star’s luminosity for about 1000 days, followed by a period of more rapid decline. Credit: Montet & Simon 2016
Photometry of KIC8462852 obtained by the Kepler mission, showing a period of more rapid decline during the later period of observation. Credit: Montet & Simon 2016

As Dr. Montet told Universe Today via email:

“Every 30 minutes, Kepler measures the brightness of 160,000 stars in its field of view (100 square degrees, or approximately as big as your hand at arm’s length). The Kepler data processing pipeline intentionally removes long-term trends, because they are hard to separate from instrumental effects and they make the search for planets harder. Once a month though, they download the full frame, so the brightness of every object in the field can be measured. From this data, we can separate the instrumental effects from astrophysical effects by seeing how the brightness of any particular star changes relative to all its neighboring stars.”

Specifically, they found that over the course of the first 1000 days of observation, the star experienced a relatively consistent drop in brightness of 0.341% ± 0.041%, which worked out to a total dimming of 0.9%. However, during the next 200 days, the star dimmed much more rapidly, with its total stellar flux dropping by more than 2%.

For the final 200 days, the star’s magnitude once again consistent and similar to what it was during the first 1000 – roughly equivalent to 0.341%. What is impressive about this is the highly anomalous nature of it, and how it only makes the star seem stranger. As Simon put it:

“Our results show that over the four years KIC 8462852 was observed by Kepler, it steadily dimmed.  For the first 2.7 years of the Kepler mission the star faded by about 0.9%.  Its brightness then decreased much faster for the next six months, declining by almost 2.5% more, for a total brightness change of around 3%.  We haven’t yet found any other Kepler stars that faded by that much over the four-year mission, or that decreased by 2.5% in six months.”

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Of the over 150,000 stars monitored by the Kepler mission, Tabby’s Starr is the only one known to exhibit this type of behavior. In addition, Monetet and Cahill compared the results they obtained to data from 193 nearby stars that had been observed by Kepler, as well as data obtained on 355 stars with similar stellar parameters.

From this rather large sampling, they found that a 0.6% change in luminosity over a four year period – which worked out to about 0.341% per year – was quite common. But none ever experienced the rapid decline of more than 2% that KIC 8462852 experienced during that 200 days interval, or the cumulative fading of 3% that it experienced overall.

Montet and Cahill looked for possible explanations, considering whether the rapid decline could be caused by a cloud of transiting circumstellar material. But whereas some phenomena can explain the long-term trend, and other the short-term trend, no one explanation can account for it all. As Montet explained:

“We propose in our paper that a cloud of gas and dust from the remnants of a planetesimal after a collision in the outer solar system of this star could explain the 2.5% dip of the star (as it passes along our line of sight). Additionally, if some clumps of matter from this collision were collided into high-eccentricity comet-like orbits, they could explain the flickering from Boyajian et al., but this model doesn’t do a nice job of explaining the long-term dimming. Other researchers are working to develop different models to explain what we see, but they’re still working on these models and haven’t submitted them for publication yet. Broadly speaking, all three effects we observe cannot be explained by any known stellar phenomenon, so it’s almost certainly the result of some material along our line of sight passing between us and the star. We just have to figure out what!”

So the question remains, what accounts for this strange dimming effect around this star? Is there yet some singular stellar phenomena that could account for it all? Or is this just the result of good timing, with astronomers being fortunate enough to see  a combination of a things at work in the same period? Hard to say, and the only way we will know for sure is to keep our eye on this strangely dimming star.

And in the meantime, will the alien enthusiasts not see this as a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox? Most likely!

Further Reading: arXiv

Did We Arrive Early To The Universe’s Life Party?

The Fermi Paradox essentially states that given the age of the Universe, and the sheer number of stars in it, there really ought to be evidence of intelligent life out there. This argument is based in part on the fact that there is a large gap between the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years) and the age of our Solar System (4.5 billion years ago). Surely, in that intervening 9.3 billion years, life has had plenty of time to evolve in other star system!

Continue reading “Did We Arrive Early To The Universe’s Life Party?”

Life On Titan Possible Without Water

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a truly fascinating place. Aside from Earth, it is the only place in the Solar System where rainfall occurs and there are active exchanges between liquids on the surface and fog in the atmosphere – albeit with methane instead of water. It’s atmospheric pressure is also comparable to Earth’s, and it is the only other body in the Solar System that has a dense atmosphere that is nitrogen-rich.

For some time, astronomers and planetary scientists have speculated that Titan might also have the prebiotic conditions necessary for life. Others, meanwhile, have argued that the absence of water on the surface rules out the possibility of life existing there. But according to a recent study  produced by a research team from Cornell University, the conditions on Titan’s surface might support the formation of life without the need for water.

When it comes to searching for life beyond Earth, scientists focus on targets that possess the necessary ingredients for life as we know it – i.e. heat, a viable atmosphere, and water. This is essentially the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where we search for conditions resembling those here on Earth. Titan – which is very cold, quite distant from our Sun, and has a thick, hazy atmosphere – does not seem like a viable candidate, given these criteria.

Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

However, according to the Cornell research team – which is led by Dr. Martin Rahm – Titan presents an opportunity to see how life could emerge under different conditions, one which are much colder than Earth and don’t involve water.

Their study – titled “Polymorphism and electronic structure of polyimine and its potential significance for prebiotic chemistry on Titan” – appeared recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, Rahm and his colleagues examined the role that hydrogen cyanide, which is believed to be central to the origin of life question, may play in Titan’s atmosphere.

Previous experiments have shown that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) molecules can link together to form polyimine, a polymer that can serve as a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids (the basis for protein cells and DNA). Previous surveys have also shown that hydrogen cyanide is the most abundant hydrogen-containing molecule in Titan’s atmosphere.

As Professor Lunine – the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and Director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and co-author of the study – told Universe Today via email: “Organic molecules, liquid lakes and seas (but of methane, not water) and some amount of solar energy reaches the surface. So this suggests the possibility of an environment that might host an exotic form of life.”

What other surprises may be found beneath Titan's thick haze and clouds? (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)
Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere may conceal clues as to the possibility of life-giving conditions on its surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major

Using quantum mechanical calculations, the Cornell team showed that polyimine has electronic and structural properties that could facilitate prebiotic chemistry under very cold conditions. These involve the ability to absorb a wide spectrum of light, which is predicted to occur in a window of relative transparency in Titan’s atmosphere.

Another is the fact that polyimine has a flexible backbone, and can therefore take on many different structures (aka. polymorphs). These range from flat sheets to complex coiled structures, which are relatively close in energy. Some of these structures, according to the team, could work to accelerate prebiotic chemical reactions, or even form structures that could act as hosts for them.

“Polyimine can form sheets,” said Lunine, “which like clays might serve as a catalytic surface for prebiotic reactions. We also find the polyimine absorbs sunlight where Titan’s atmosphere is quite transparent, which might help to energize reactions.”

In short, the presence of polyimine could mean that Titan’s surface gets the energy its needs to drive photochemical reactions necessary for the creation of organic life, and that it could even assist in the development of that life. But of course, no evidence has been found that polyimine has been produced on the surface of Titan, which means that these research findings are still academic at this point.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com
Proposed missions to Titan have included (from left to right) the TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer) and NASA’s Titan Mare Explorer. Credit: bisbos.com

However, Lunine and his team indicate that hydrogen cyanide may very well have lead to the creation of polyimine on Titan, and that it might have simply escaped detection because of Titan’s murky atmosphere. They also added that future missions to Titan might be able to look for signs of the polymer, as part of ongoing research into the possibility of exotic life emerging in other parts of the Solar System.

“We would need an advanced payload on the surface to sample and search for polyimines,” answered Lunine, “or possibly by a next generation spectrometer from orbit. Both of these are “beyond Cassini”, that is, the next generation of missions.”

Perhaps when Juno is finished surveying Jupiter’s atmosphere in two years time, NASA might consider retasking it for a flyby of Titan? After all, Juno was specifically designed to peer beneath a veil of thick clouds. They don’t come much thicker than on Titan!

Further Reading: PNAS

‘Wow!’ Signal Was…Wait For It…Comets

The Wow! signal. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)
The Wow! signal recorded on August 15, 1977. The ones, twos and threes indicate weak background noise. Letters, especially those closer to the end of the alphabet, represent stronger signals. The “6EQUJ5” is read from top to bottom (see graph below) and shows the signal rising from “6” to “U” before dropping back down to “5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)

Comets get blamed for everything. Pestilence in medieval Europe? Comets! Mass extinctions? Comets! Even the anomalous brightness variations in the Kepler star KIC 8462852 was blamed for a time on comets. Now it looks like the most famous maybe-ET signal ever sifted from the sky, the so-called “Wow!” signal, may also be traced to comets.

Say it ain’t so!

The Big Ear Observatory, on the grounds of Ohio Wesleyan University, operated from 1963-1998. It was part of Ohio State University's long-running Search for Extraterrestrial (SETI) program. The observatory was torn down in 1998 to make room for a golf course. Credit: Bigear.org / NAAPO
The Big Ear Observatory, on the grounds of Ohio Wesleyan University, operated from 1963-1998. It was part of Ohio State University’s long-running Search for Extraterrestrial (SETI) program. The observatory was torn down in 1998 to make room for a golf course. Credit: Bigear.org / NAAPO

In August 1977, radio astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking through observation data from the Ohio State’s now-defunct Big Ear radio telescope gathered a few days earlier on August 15. He was searching for signals that stood apart from the background noise that might be broadcast by an alien civilization. Since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and emits energy at the specific frequency of 1420 megahertz (just above the TV and cellphone bands), aliens might adopt it as the “lingua franca” of the cosmos. Scientists here on Earth concentrated radio searches at and around that frequency looking for strong signals that mimicked hydrogen.

Ehman’s searches turned up mostly background noise, but that mid-August night he spotted a surprise — a vertical column with the alphanumerical sequence “6EQUJ5″ that indicated a strong signal at hydrogen’s frequency. Exactly as predicted. Big Ear picked up the signal from near the 5th magnitude star Chi-1 Sagittarii in eastern Sagittarius not far from the globular cluster M55.

Astonished by the find, Ehman pulled out a red pen, circled the sequence and wrote a big “Wow!” in the margin. Ever since, it’s been called the Wow! signal and considered one of the few signals from space that defies explanation. Before we look at how that may change, let’s make sense of the code.

Plot of signal strength vs time of the Wow! signal on August 15, 1977. Credit: Maksim Rossomakhin
Plot of signal strength vs time of the Wow! signal on August 15, 1977. The signal rose and fell during the 72 seconds observation window. Credit: Maksim Rossomakhin

Each digit on the chart corresponded to a signal intensity from 0 to 35. Anything over “9” was represented by a letter from A to Z. It was probably the “U” that knocked Ehman’s socks off, since it indicated to a radio burst 30 times greater than the background noise of space.

In Big Ear’s 35 years of operation, it was the most intense, unexplainable signal ever recorded. What’s more, it was narrowly focused and very close to hydrogen’s special frequency.

Big Ear listened for just 72 seconds before Earth’s rotation carried the signal’s location out of “view” of antenna.  Since the radio array had two feed horns, the transmission was expected to appear three minutes apart in each of the horns, but only a single one ever picked it up.

Despite follow-up observations by Ehman and others (more than 100 studies were made of the region) the signal was gone. Never heard from again. Nor has anything else like it ever been recorded anywhere else in the sky.

Careful scrutiny eliminated earthbound possibilities such as aircraft or satellites. Nor would anyone have been transmitting at 1420 MHz since it was within a protected part of the radio spectrum used by astronomers and off-limits to regular broadcasters. The nature of the signal implied a point source somewhere beyond the Earth. But where?

On August 15, 1977, periodic comets 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs would have both been very close to the small swath of sky south of Chi Sagittarii where the Wow! signal was received. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium
On August 15, 1977, periodic comets 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs would have both been very close to the narrow swath of sky south of Chi Sagittarii where the Wow! signal was received. Could they be implicated? Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium

If it really was an attempt at alien contact, why try only once and for so short a time interval? Even Ehman doubted (and still doubts) an extraterrestrial intelligence origin, but a much more recent suggestion made by Prof. Antonio Paris of St. Petersburg College, Florida may offer an answer. Paris earlier worked as an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and returned to the “scene of the crime” looking for any likely suspects. After studying astronomical databases, he discovered that two faint comets,  266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, discovered only within the past decade, had been plying the very area of the Wow! signal on August 15, 1977.

A huge cloud of hydrogen surrounded Comet Hale-Bopp when it neared the Sun in the spring of 1997. Ultraviolet light, charted by the SWAN instrument on the SOHO spacecraft, revealed a cloud 100 million kilometres wide and diminishing in intensity outwards (contour lines). It far exceeded the great comet's visible tail (inset photograph). Although generated by a comet nucleus perhaps 40 kilometres in diameter, the hydrogen cloud was 70 times wider than the Sun itself (yellow circle to scale)
A huge cloud of hydrogen surrounded Comet Hale-Bopp when it neared the Sun in 1997. Ultraviolet light, charted by the SWAN instrument on the SOHO spacecraft, revealed that the cloud far exceeded the great comet’s visible tail (inset photo) —  70 times wider than the Sun itself (yellow circle to scale at right). Credit: SOHO (ESA & NASA) and SWAN Consortium / inset: Dennis di Cicco

If you recall, a comet has two or three basic parts: a fuzzy head or coma and one or two tails streaming off behind. Invisible to earthbound telescopes, but showing clearly in orbiting telescopes able to peer into ultraviolet light, the coma is further wrapped in a huge cloud of neutral hydrogen gas.

As the Sun warms a comet’s surface, water ice or H2O vaporizes from its nucleus. Energetic solar UV light breaks down those water molecules into H2 and O. The H2 forms a huge, distended halo that can expand to many times the size of the Sun.

Paris published a paper earlier this year exploring the possibility that the hydrogen envelopes of either or both comets were responsible for the strong 1420 MHz signal snagged by Big Ear. On the surface, this makes sense, but not all astronomers agree. First off, if comets are so radio-bright in hydrogen light, why don’t radio telescopes pick them up more often? They don’t. Second, some astronomers doubt that the signals from these comets would have been strong enough to be picked up by the array.

image of the full page of the computer printout that contains the "Wow!" signal. Credit:
Image of the full page of the computer printout that contains the “Wow!” signal. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)

A quick check on 266P and 335P at the time of the signal show them both around 5 a.u. from the sun (Jupiter’s distance) and extremely faint at magnitudes 22 and 27 respectively. Were they even active enough at those distances to form clouds big enough for the antenna to detect?

Paris knows there’s only one way to find out. Comet 266P/Christensen will swing through the same area again on Jan. 25, 2017, while 335P/Gibbs follows suit on January 7, 2018. Unable to use an existing radio telescope (they’re all booked up!), he’s begun a gofundme campaign to purchase and install a 3-meter radio telescope to track and analyze the spectra of these two comets. The goal is $20,000 and Paris is already well on his way there.

It would be a little bit sad if the Wow! signal turned out to be a “just a comet”, but the possibility of solving a 39-year-old mystery would ultimately be more satisfying, don’t you think?

Fast Radio Bursts On Repeat – Aliens, Or A Rotating Neutron Star?

Very recently, a team of scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) achieved an historic first by being able to pinpoint the source of fast radio bursts (FRBs). With the help of observatories around the world, they determined that these radio signals originated in an elliptical galaxy 6 billion light years from Earth. But as it turns out, this feat has been followed by yet another historic first.

In all previous cases where FRBs were detected, they appeared to be one-off events, lasting for mere milliseconds. However, after running the data from a recent FRB through a supercomputer, a team of scientists at McGill University in Montreal have determined that in this instance, the signal was repeating in nature. This finding has some serious implications for the astronomical community, and is also considered by some to be proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

FRBs have puzzled astronomers since they were first detected in 2007. This event, known as the Lorimer Burst, lasted a mere five milliseconds and appeared to be coming from a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, billions of light years away. Since that time, a total of 16 FRBs have been detected. And in all but this one case, the duration was extremely short and was not followed up by any additional bursts.

The NSF's Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Credit: NAIC
The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Credit: NAIC

Because of their short duration and one-off nature, many scientists have reasoned that FRBs must be the result of cataclysmic events – such as a star going supernova or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. However, after sifting through data obtained by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, a team of students from McGill University – led by PhD student Paul Scholz – determined that an FRB detected in 2012 did not conform to this pattern.

In an article published in Nature, Scholz and his associates describe how this particular signal – FRB 121102 – was followed by several bursts with properties that were consistent with the original signal. Running the data which was gathered in May and June through a supercomputer at the McGill High Performance Computing Center, they determined that FRB 121102 had emitted a total of 10 new bursts after its initial detection.

This would seem to indicate that FRBs have more than just one cause, which presents some rather interesting possibilities. As Paul Scholz told Universe Today via email:

“All previous Fast Radio Bursts have only been one-time events, so a lot of explanations for them have involved a cataclysmic event that destroys the source of the bursts, such as a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. Our discovery of repeating bursts from FRB 121102 shows that the source cannot have been destroyed and it must have been due to a phenomenon that can repeat, such as bright pulses from a rotating neutron star.”

The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

Another possibility which is making the rounds is that this signal is not natural in origin. Since their discovery, FRBs and other “transient signals” – i.e. seemingly random and temporary signals – from the Universe have been the subject of speculation. As would be expected, there have been some who have suggested that they might be the long sought-after proof that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist.

For example, in 1967, after receiving a strange reading from a radio array in a Cambridge field, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her team considered the possibility that what they were seeing was an alien message. This would later be shown to be incorrect – it was, in fact, the first discovery of a pulsar. However, the possibility these signals are alien in origin has remained fixed in the public (and scientific) imagination.

This has certainly been the case since the discovery of FRBs. In an article published by New Scientists in April of 2015 – titled “Cosmic Radio Plays An Alien Tune” – writer and astrophysicist Sarah Scoles explores the possibility of whether or not the strange regularity of some FRBs that appeared to be coming from within the Milky Way could be seen as evidence of alien intelligence.

However, the likelihood that these signals are being sent by extra-terrestrials is quite low. For one, FRBs are not an effective way to send a message. As Dr. Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University – who was part of the first FRB discovery –  has explained, it takes a lot of energy to make a signal that spreads across lots of frequencies (which is a distinguishing feature of FRBs).

Scientists have been exploring the possibility that radio bursts
For decades, scientists have been exploring the possibility that radio bursts are signals from alien civilizations. Credit: AdamBurn/DeviantArt

And if these bursts came from outside of our galaxy, which certainly seems to be the case, they would have to be incredibly energetic to get this far. As Dr. McLaughlin explained to Universe Today via email:

“The total amount of power required to produce just one FRB pulse is as much as the Sun produces in a month! Although we might expect extraterrestrial civilizations to send short-duration signals, sending a signal over the very wide radio bandwidths over which FRBs are detected would require an improbably immense amount of energy. We expect that extraterrestrial civilizations would transmit over a very narrow range of radio frequencies, much like a radio station on Earth. 

But regardless of whether these signals are natural or extra-terrestrial in origin, they do present some rather exciting possibilities for astronomical research and our knowledge of the Universe. Moving forward, Scholz and his team hope to identify the galaxy where the radio bursts originated, and plans to use test out some recently-developed techniques in the process.

“Next we would like to localize the source of the bursts to identify the galaxy that they are coming from,” he said. “This will let us know about the environment around the source. To do this, we need to use radio interferometry to get a precise enough sky location. But, to do this we need to detect a burst while we are looking at the source with such a radio telescope array. Since the source is not always bursting we will have to wait until we get a detection of a burst while we are looking with radio interferometry. So, if we’re patient, eventually we should be able to pinpoint the galaxy that the bursts are coming from.”

In the end, we may find that rapid burst radio waves are a more common occurrence than we thought. In all likelihood, they are being regularly emitted by rare and powerful stellar objects, ones which we’ve only begun to notice. As for the other possibility? Well, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but we’re quite sure others will be!

Credit: History.com/memegenerator.com
Credit: History.com/memegenerator.com

Further Reading: McGill University

Radio waves absent from the reputed megastructure-encompassed Kepler star?

Astronomers at the SETI institute (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have reported their findings after monitoring the reputed megastructure-encompassed star KIC 8462852.  No significant radio signals were detected in observations carried out from the Allen Telescope Array between October 15-30th (nearly 12 hours each day).  However, there are caveats, namely that the sensitivity and frequency range were limited, and gaps existed in the coverage (e.g., between 6-7 Ghz).

Lead author Gerald Harp and the SETI team discussed the various ideas proposed to explain the anomalous Kepler brightness measurements of KIC 8462852, “The unusual star KIC 8462852 studied by the Kepler space telescope appears to have a large quantity of matter orbiting quickly about it. In transit, this material can obscure more than 20% of the light from that star. However, the dimming does not exhibit the periodicity expected of an accompanying exoplanet.”  The team went on to add that, “Although natural explanations should be favored; e.g., a constellation of comets disrupted by a passing star (Boyajian et al. 2015), or gravitational darkening of an oblate star (Galasyn 2015), it is interesting to speculate that the occluding matter might signal the presence of massive astroengineering projects constructed in the vicinity of KIC 8462582 (Wright, Cartier et al. 2015).”

One such megastructure was discussed in a famous paper by Freeman Dyson (1960), and subsequently designated a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.  In order to accommodate an advanced civilisation’s increasing energy demands, Dyson remarked that, “pressures will ultimately drive an intelligent species to adopt some such efficient exploitation of its available resources. One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star.”  Dyson further proposed that a search be potentially conducted for artificial radio emissions stemming from the vicinity of a target star.



An episode of Star Trek TNG featured a memorable discussion regarding a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.

The SETI team summarized Dyson’s idea by noting that Solar panels could serve to capture starlight as a source of sustainable energy, and likewise highlighted that other, “large-scale structures might be built to serve as possible habitats (e.g., “ring worlds”), or as long-lived beacons to signal the existence of such civilizations to technologically advanced life in other star systems by occluding starlight in a manner not characteristic of natural orbiting bodies (Arnold 2013).”  Indeed, bright variable stars such as the famed Cepheid stars have been cited as potential beacons.



The Universe Today’s Fraser Cain discusses a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.

If a Dyson Sphere encompassed the Kepler catalogued star, the SETI team were seeking in part to identify spacecraft that may service a large structure and could be revealed by a powerful wide bandwidth signal.  The team concluded that their radio observations did not reveal any significant signal stemming from the star (e.g., Fig 1 below).  Yet as noted above, the sensitivity was limited to above 100 Jy and the frequency range was restricted to 1-10 Ghz, and gaps existed in that coverage.

Fig 1 from Harp et al. 2015 (http://arxiv.org/abs/1511.01606) indicating the lack of signal detected for the Kepler star (black symbols).
Fig 1 from Harp et al. (2015) conveys the lack of radio waves emerging from the star KIC 8462852 (black symbols), however there were sensitivity and coverage limitations (see text).  The signal emerging from the quasar 3c84 is shown via blue symbols.

What is causing the odd brightness variations seen in the Kepler star KIC 8462852?   Were those anomalous variations a result of an unknown spurious artefact from the telescope itself, a swath of comets temporarily blocking the star’s light, or perhaps something more extravagant.  The latter should not be hailed as the de facto source simply because an explanation is not readily available.  However, the intellectual exercise of contemplating the technology advanced civilisations could construct to address certain needs (e.g., energy) is certainly a worthy venture.