What’s Orbiting KIC 8462852 – Shattered Comet or Alien Megastructure?

“Bizarre.” “Interesting.” “Giant transit”.  That were the reactions of Planet Hunters project volunteers when they got their first look at the light curve of the otherwise normal sun-like star KIC 8462852 nearly.

Of the more than 150,000 stars under constant observation during the four years of NASA’s primary Kepler Mission (2009-2013), this one stands alone for the inexplicable dips in its light. While almost certainly naturally-caused, some have suggested we consider other possibilities.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle
Kepler-11, a sun-like star orbited by six planets. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist’s conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by the Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. During each pass or transit, the star’s light fades in a periodic way. 
Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

You’ll recall that the orbiting Kepler observatory continuously monitored stars in a fixed field of view focused on the constellations Lyra and Cygnus hoping to catch  periodic dips in their light caused by transiting planets. If a drop was seen, more transits were observed to confirm the detection of a new exoplanet.

And catch it did. Kepler found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in 440 star systems as of January 2015 with 3,199 unconfirmed candidates. Measuring the amount of light the planet temporarily “robbed” from its host star allowed astronomers to determine its diameter, while the length of time between transits yielded its orbital period.

Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude. Credit: Boyajian et. all
Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude up to 22%. The usual drop in light when an exoplanet transits its host star is a fraction of a percent. The star’s normal brightness has been set to “1.00” as a baseline. Credit: Boyajian et. all

Volunteers with the Planet Hunters project, one of many citizen science programs under the umbrella of Zooniverse, harness the power of the human eye to examine Kepler light curves (a graph of a star’s changing light intensity over time), looking for repeating patterns that might indicate orbiting planets. They were the first to meet up with the perplexing KIC 8462852.

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A detailed look at a small part of the star’s light curve reveals an unknown, regular variation of its light every 20 days. Superimposed on that is the star’s 0.88 day rotation period. Credit: Boyajian et. all

This magnitude +11.7 star in Cygnus, hotter and half again as big as the Sun, showed dips all over the place. Around Day 800 during Kepler’s run, it faded by 15% then resumed a steady brightness until Days 1510-1570, when it underwent a whole series of dips including one that dimmed the star by 22%. That’s huge! Consider that an exo-Earth blocks only a fraction of a percent of a star’s light; even a Jupiter-sized world, the norm among extrasolar planets, soaks up about a percent.

Exoplanets also show regular, repeatable light curves as they enter, cross and then exit the faces of their host stars. KIC 8462852’s dips are wildly a-periodic.

Could a giant comet breakup followed by those pieces crumbling into even smaller comets be the reason for KIC's erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA
Could a giant comet breakup and subsequent cascading breakups of those pieces be behind KIC 8462852’s erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA

Whatever’s causing the flickering can’t be a planet. With great care, the researchers ruled out many possibilities: instrumental errors, starspots (like sunspots but on other stars), dust rings seen around young, evolving stars (this is an older star) and pulsations that cover a star with light-sucking dust clouds.

What about a collision between two planets? That would generate lots of material along with huge clouds of dust that could easily choke off a star’s light in rapid and irregular fashion.

A great idea except that dust absorbs light from its host star, warms up and glows in infrared light. We should be able to see this “infrared excess” if it were there, but instead KIC 8462852 beams the expected amount of infrared for a star of its class and not a jot more. There’s also no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) several years previously that a dust-releasing collision happened around the star.

Our featured star shines around 12th magnitude in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium
Our featured star shines at magnitude +11.7 in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium

After examining the options, the researchers concluded the best fit might be a shattered comet that continued to fragment into a cascade of smaller comets. Pretty amazing scenario. There’s still dust to account for, but not as much as other scenarios would require.

Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It's located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It’s located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Being fragile types, comets can crumble all by themselves especially when passing exceptionally near the Sun as sungrazing comets are wont to do in our own Solar System. Or a passing star could disturb the host star’s Oort comet cloud and unleash a barrage of comets into the inner stellar system. It so happens that a red dwarf star lies within about 1000 a.u. (1000 times Earth’s distance from the Sun) of KIC 8462852. No one knows yet whether the star orbits the Kepler star or happens to be passing by. Either way, it’s close enough to get involved in comet flinging.

So much for “natural” explanations. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, who oversees the Planet Hunters and the lead author of the paper on KIC 8462852, asked Jason Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy at Penn State, what he thought of the light curves. “Crazy” came to mind as soon he set eyes on them, but the squiggles stirred a thought. Turns out Wright had been working on a paper about detecting transiting megastructures with Kepler.

There are Dyson rings and spheres and this, an illustration of a Dyson swarm. Could this or a variation of it be what we're detecting around KIC? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia
There are Dyson rings and spheres and a Dyson swarm depicted here. Could this or a variation of it be what we’re seeing around KIC 8462852? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia

In a recent blog, he writes: “The idea is that if advanced alien civilizations build planet-sized megastructures — solar panels, ring worlds, telescopes, beacons, whatever — Kepler might be able to distinguish them from planets.” Let’s assume our friendly aliens want to harness the energy of their home star. They might construct enormous solar panels by the millions and send them into orbit to beam starlight down to their planet’s surface. Physicist Freeman Dyson popularized the idea back in the 1960s. Remember the Dyson Sphere, a giant hypothetical structure built to encompass a star?

From our perspective, we might see the star flicker in irregular ways as the giant panels circled about it. To illustrate this point, Wright came up with a wonderful analogy:

“The analogy I have is watching the shadows on the blinds of people outside a window passing by. If one person is going around the block on a bicycle, their shadow will appear regularly in time and shape (like a regular transiting planet). But crowds of people ambling by — both directions, fast and slow, big and large — would not have any regularity about it at all.  The total light coming through the blinds might vary like — Tabby’s star.”

The Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT's dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space.
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Even Wright admits that the “alien hypothesis” should be seen as a last resort. But to make sure no stone goes  unturned, Wright, Boyajian and several of the Planet Hunters put together a proposal to do a radio-SETI search with the Green Bank 100-meter telescope. In my opinion, this is science at its best. We have a difficult question to answer, so let’s use all the tools at our disposal to seek an answer.

Star with a mystery, KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. Credit: Gianluca Masi
KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. It’s an F3 V star (yellow-white dwarf) located about 1,480 light years from Earth. Credit: Gianluca Masi

In the end, it’s probably not an alien megastructure, just like the first pulsar signals weren’t sent by LGM-1 (Little Green Men). But whatever’s causing the dips, Boyajian wants astronomers to keep a close watch on KIC 8462852 to find out if and when its erratic light variations repeat. I love a mystery, but  answers are even better.

How To Crowdsource Astronomy Without People Messing It Up

Maybe it’s because Jurassic Park is in theaters again, but we at Universe Today sometimes worry about how one person can mess up an otherwise technologically amazing system. It took just one nefarious employee to shut down the dinosaur park’s security fences in the movie and cause havoc. How do we ensure science can fight against that, especially when everyday citizens are getting more and more involved in the scientific process?

But perhaps, after talking to Chris Lintott, that view is too suspicious. Lintott is in charge of a collaborative astronomy and science project called the Zooniverse that uses public contributions to fuel some of the science he performs. Basically, anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to contribute can hunt for planets or examine astronomical objects, among many other projects.

Lintott, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, says the science requires public contributions. Moreover, he hasn’t had a problem yet despite 800,000 individual contributors to the Zooniverse. He told Universe Today about how that’s possible in an e-mail interview.

1) Zooniverse has already produced tangible scientific results in space through collaborating with ordinary folks. Can you talk about some of the papers/findings that have been produced in your various projects?

There’s a long, long list. I’m particularly excited at the minute about our work on bulgeless galaxies; most spiral galaxies have a bulge full of old stars at their centre, but we’ve found plenty that don’t. That’s exciting because we think that means that they’re guaranteed not to have had a big merger in the last 10 billion years or so, and that means we can use them to figure out just what effect mergers have on galaxies. You’ll be hearing more about them in the next year or so as we have plenty of observing time lined up.

I’m also a big fan of Planet Hunters 1b, our first confirmed planet discovery – it’s a planet in a four-star system, and thus provides a nice challenge to our understanding of how planets form. We’ve found lots of planet candidates (systems where we’re more than 90% sure there’s a planet there) but it’s nice to get one confirmed and especially nice for it to be such an interesting world.

One of Zooniverse's projects examines the nature of spiral galaxies, particularly those without central bulges at the center. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)
One of Zooniverse’s projects examines the nature of spiral galaxies, particularly those without central bulges at the center. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)

2) What benefits have you received from involving the public in space projects, in terms of results as well as raising awareness?

We couldn’t do our research any other way. Astronomers have got very good in the last few decades at collecting information about the universe, but we’re not always so good at learning how to use all of that information. The Zooniverse allows us to collaborate with hundreds of thousands of people so that we can scale our efforts to deal with that flood of data, and many of those volunteers go much further than just clicking on buttons we provide. So really our research is now driven in collaboration with thousands of people, spread all around the world – that’s an inspiring thought.

3) How many people do you manage in your space projects, approximately? How do you keep track of them all?

We have more than 800,000 registered volunteers – luckily, the computer keeps track of them (when they log in!).

4) How do you ensure their results meet the standards of scientific publication?

We carefully design projects so that we’re sure they will produce scientifically useful results before they’re launched; this usually means running a test with a small amount of data and comparing work done by volunteers with that of professionals. We usually find the volunteers are better than us! It helps that we have several people complete each task, so collectively we don’t make accidental mistakes.

5) How do you guard against somebody deliberately or accidentally altering the results?

The system insists that every classification is independent, and as we have several people look at each classification finding any deliberate attack would be easy – in any case, we’ve never seen any evidence of such a thing. Despite popular reports, most people are nice!

Citizen Planet Hunters Find a Planet in a Four-Star System

A family portrait of the PH1 planetary system: The newly discovered planet is depicted in this artist’s rendition transiting the larger of the two eclipsing stars it orbits. Off in the distance, well beyond the planet orbit, resides a second pair of stars bound to the planetary system. Image Credit: Haven Giguere/Yale.

A planet has been discovered orbiting in a four-star system — and no, that doesn’t mean the accommodations and conditions are excellent. It literally means four stars, where a planet is orbiting a binary star system that in turn is orbited by a second distant pair of stars. This is the first system like this that has ever been found, and its discovery demonstrates the power of citizen scientists, as it was found by a joint effort of amateurs participating on the Planet Hunters website under the guidance of professional astronomers.

This is might be an extremely rare planetary setup, astronomer Meg Schwamb from Yale says, as only six planets are currently known to orbit two stars, and none of these are orbited by other stellar companions. Astronomers are calling the newly found world a ‘circumbinary’ planet.

“Circumbinary planets are the extremes of planet formation,” said Schwamb, Planet Hunters scientist and lead author of a paper about the system presented Oct. 15 at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nevada. “The discovery of these systems is forcing us to go back to the drawing board to understand how such planets can assemble and evolve in these dynamically challenging environments.”

The planet is called PH1, for the first confirmed planet identified by the Planet Hunters citizen scientists, but it has the nickname of Tatooine, the planet in Star Wars that orbited two suns.

Planet Hunters uses data from the Kepler spacecraft, specially designed for looking for signs of planets.

The volunteers, Kian Jek of San Francisco and Robert Gagliano of Cottonwood, Arizona, spotted faint dips in light caused by the planet as it passed in front of its parent stars, a common method of finding extrasolar planets. Schwamb, a Yale postdoctoral researcher, led the team of professional astronomers that confirmed the discovery and characterized the planet, following observations from the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. PH1 is a gas giant with a radius about 6.2 times that of Earth, making it a bit bigger than Neptune.

“Planet Hunters is a symbiotic project, pairing the discovery power of the people with follow-up by a team of astronomers,” said Debra Fischer, a professor of astronomy at Yale and planet expert who helped launch Planet Hunters in 2010. “This unique system might have been entirely missed if not for the sharp eyes of the public.”

PH1 orbits outside the 20-day orbit of a pair of eclipsing stars that are 1.5 and 0.41 times the mass of the Sun. This planet is dense — it has perhaps about 170 times more mass than Earth — and is about half the diameter of Jupiter. It revolves around its host stars roughly every 138 days. Beyond the planet’s orbit at about 1000 AU (roughly 1000 times the distance between Earth and the Sun) is a second pair of stars orbiting the planetary system.

Gagliano, one of the two citizen scientists involved in the discovery, said he was “absolutely ecstatic to spot a small dip in the eclipsing binary star’s light curve from the Kepler telescope, the signature of a potential new circumbinary planet, ‘Tatooine,’ and it’s a great honor to be a Planet Hunter, citizen scientist, and work hand in hand with professional astronomers, making a real contribution to science.”

Jek expressed wonder at the possibility of the discovery: “It still continues to astonish me how we can detect, let alone glean so much information, about another planet thousands of light years away just by studying the light from its parent star.”

Read the paper here.

Source: Planet Hunters