Monday, 22 May 2017 13:07

The weirdest star in space is acting weird again. Is it aliens?

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This week a bizarrely behaving star began acting very odd again, sending scientists scrambling to train telescopes on it in hopes of solving its mystery.

In 2015, astronomers discovered what's become known as one of the strangest stars seen so far in the universe.

Weird things are happening around KIC 8462852 (aka Tabby's Star or Boyajian's Star) once again, sending scientists into a panic to get as many big telescopes trained on it as possible.

What's weird about the star is that it goes through dramatic and somewhat random periods of getting dimmer from our viewing perspective here on Earth. Stars tend to get dim when things like planets or even huge clouds of dust pass in front of them, but that kind of thing usually happens on a regular schedule, and only accounts for slight amounts of dimming.

But the dimming observed at KIC 8462852 doesn't fit the usual patterns of planets or a companion star (which it does have, but it's very distant and can't explain what astronomers are seeing). To make things weirder, the star has also shown a 15 percent decrease in brightness over the past century.

This week, observations of the star located some 1,400 light-years away showed a potentially major dimming event was beginning to happen again. This sent astronomers like Tabetha Boyajian, who is credited with discovering the star and its odd nature, scrambling on social media and elsewhere to get "eyes" on the system, both human and technological.

Astronomer Jason Wright put out a similar call and took questions via a livestream Friday afternoon about the event. When the star first made headlines, Wright threw out the admittedly far-fetched hypothesis that giant alien megastructures like a partially constructed Dyson spherecould explain the odd patterns of dimming, including the slow dimming over the last century. (It's slow to humans, but actually quite significant and fast on cosmic time scales.)

Wright said that as of early Friday, the star had dimmed very suddenly by 3 percent in just a few days.

"And so we are officially on alert and we are asking astronomers on telescopes ... to please take spectra (light measurements) of the star," Wright said.

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Best places in space to search for alien life

The Red Planet

The deeper we look into space, the more places we come across that seem like maybe, just maybe, could host life. From our neighboring planets to distant galaxies sending out weird signals, the list of spots in space worth checking out just continues to grow.

The closest world we should check for signs of life is one we've already been to, or at least our robots have. There's increasing evidence that Mars was once a lot more like Earth, with oceans on its surface. Today it's more harsh, but it's not out of the question that we could find some sort of microbes in Martian soil.

The Red Planet
 Photo by: Adam Arkin/UC Berkeley

Ceres

Dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt is full of surprises. It started with those big bright spots that turned out to be salt deposits, and there's also a huge, strange pyramid-shaped mountain, plenty of water beneath the surface and even the building blocks of life. Some people already believe this huge rock is actually an alien ship. The evidence isn't there to support that theory, but the place does seem worth a closer look.

Ceres
 Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Jupiter

We don't think of the largest gas giant planet around as a place to look for life, but science fiction author Ben Bova has other ideas.

"It's got all the ingredients, enough room and lots of energy," he said in 2016.

Bova briefly explained his notion of life-forms that might be able to live in the air or in water underneath Jupiter's dense deck of clouds. He referred me to a few of the novels from his "Grand Tour" series, including "Jupiter" and "Leviathans of Jupiter."

The storyline of the novels revolves around the existence of massive, city-size life-forms called Leviathans living in gigantic oceans that have condensed beneath the clouds of Jupiter.

Um, sure. Why not?

Jupiter
Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Titan

Saturn's satellite Titan is the rare moon in our solar system with an atmosphere, weather, seas and rivers. It sure looks like home, except it's freezing and the lakes are flammable. Whatever life could survive there would be awfully weird, but scientists would still love to send a submarine to see for themselves.

Titan
Photo by: NASA/Steven Hobbs

Enceladus

Like Europa, Saturnian moon Enceladus has an icy shell with plumes shooting into space. In 2015, the Cassini spacecraft actually flew through one of the plumes and found large amounts of hydrogen present in its hidden ocean. This suggests the watery world has just about all the ingredients required to support life.
Enceladus
Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

Europa

Jupiter moon Europa not only hides a subsurface ocean beneath its icy shell, but geysers have also been spotted there, hinting that some sort of hydrothermal activity might be able to support marine life. 
Europa
Photo by: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Callisto

Jupiter's moon Callisto is another world that harbors an unseen ocean. Checking it for microbes or any other exotic life forms might be tough, though, because it would require drilling through its huge, rocky exterior.
Callisto
Photo by: Voyager Project, JPL, NASA

Ganymede

Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon, has long been suspected of harboring a subsurface ocean. In 2015, scientists said they could confirm a salty ocean beneath its frozen crust. It also has a thin oxygen atmosphere, adding to its intrigue.
Ganymede
Photo by: NASA/ESA

Venus

Yes our nearest planetary neighbor is supposed to be a horrible, hot and toxic hellscape, but that's just below the clouds. Higher in the atmosphere it could be quite nice. The planet wasn't always so inhospitable, so perhaps something managed to adapt? Scary to imagine what might have managed that, but you know you want to see it.
Venus
Photo by: NASA/HAVOC/SACD

Pluto

This former planet is very cold, but it's also more interesting than we used to think, with hints of active geology, lots of ice and perhaps some hidden oceans of its own. Definitely worth adding to the life-prospecting itinerary.
Pluto
Photo by: NASA/K.B. Kofoed

Proxima b

A potentially habitable planet around the nearest star to the sun, Proxima b is a no-brainer for closer examination. In fact, some told stories about alien civilizations there before the planet was even discovered. Plans are already underway to send tiny craft there to see if anyone is about.

Proxima b
Photo by: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Trappist-1 system

The TRAPPIST-1 system is just 40 light-years away and hosts up to seven Earth-sized planets, all very close to each other and perfect for the space-faring civilization of our sci-fi dreams.
Trappist-1 system
Photo by: NASA/R. Hurt/T. Pyle

Wolf 1061c

Wolf 1061 c is a "super-Earth" just 14 light-years away, making it one of the top five closest potentially habitable planets orbiting another star. We've known about it for a few years, and scientists have already started checking it for alien transmissions.
Wolf 1061c
Photo by: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Somewhere in Auriga

Mysterious signals known as "fast radio bursts" have baffled astronomers for a decade. The only such signal that repeats has been traced to a tiny galaxy in this image in the constellation Auriga. Is it E.T. phoning home?
Somewhere in Auriga
Photo by: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC

KIC 8462852

Something weird is going on around the distant star KIC 8462852, also known as Boyajian's Star. After a few years of research, no one knows for sure what's happening, but one explanation that's yet to be completely ruled out is the far-out notion that a highly advanced society is building insanely huge megastructures in space that obstruct the star. Gulp.
KIC 8462852
Photo by: Danielle Futselaar/METI International

Kepler 186f

Kepler 186f was one of the first confirmed Earth-like, potentially habitable exoplanets. But at 500 light years away, it no longer receives quite as much attention as targets closer to home.
Kepler 186f
Photo by: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Kepler 283c

Kepler-283c was discovered as part of a huge data dump from Kepler that included over 700 newly confirmed exoplanets. It is about twice the size of Earth and orbits much closer to its home star, which is 1,743 light years from Earth.

Kepler 283c
Photo by: Joachim Michaelis

Gliese 667C system

Some of the strangest exoplanets can be found in the habitable zone of Gliese 667C , which is one of three suns in the triple-star Gliese 667 system. This probably makes for some interesting skyscapes from planets Gliese-667Ce and Gliese-667Cf, the two most likely planets in the system to harbor water (a third planet nearby is also in the habitable zone, but with slightly less favorable conditions for life.)

Gliese 667C system
Photo by: European Southern Observatory

HD 40307g

HD 40307g is another nearby super-Earth only 42 light years away that will be a top target for the next generation of telescopes.

HD 40307g
Photo by: University of Hertfordshire

Kepler 62f

Kepler 62f was one of the first exoplanets found by the space telescope beginning to approach the size of Earth. Four years later, it's still among the best candidates that could be a sister planet to our own.

Kepler 62f
Photo by: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

Gliese 832c

Gliese 832c is a super-Earth just 16 light years away that could be potentially habitable but probably has some pretty extreme seasons. Perhaps we'll one day find it to be the true home of Westeros?

Gliese 832c
Photo by: Efrain Morales Rivera, Astronomical Society of the Caribbean, PHL @ UPR Arecibo

Gliese 581d

Gliese 581d is a potentially habitable planet just 20 light-years away. In 20 years we could probably know if it delivers on that potential.

Gliese 581d
Photo by: DarinK/deviantART/CC License

LHS 1140b

The exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may be the new holder of the title "best place to look for signs of life beyond the solar system." This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere.

LHS 1140b
Photo by: ESO/spaceengine.org

HD 164595

very strange signal reportedly came from the direction of the star HD 164595 in the constellation Hercules, which has at least one confirmed planet, a Neptune-size world in close orbit that would seem unlikely to support life as we know it. Then again, there could be other planets there we haven't seen yet...

HD 164595
Photo by: Torsten Bronger/PP3

Even more Kepler planets

There's a number of other potentially habitable exoplanets out there that kind of blend together, most of them discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. To keep from getting monotonous, we're not listing them all, but the Planetary Habitability Lab does here.

Even more Kepler planets
Photo by: NASA/W. Stenzel

Real-life Tatooines

When some of us think of life on distant exoplanets, it's hard not to picture dusk on the home world of one young Luke Skywalker. Recently scientists have considered how real planets in binary star systems, just like Tatooine of "Star Wars" fame, might be able to support life.

Their results were promising, partially validating a primary reason that at least one space nut hopes we continue looking everywhere for life: the hope that Yoda really is still out there somewhere.

Real-life Tatooines
Photo by: Ben Bromley, University of Utah

Most scientists, including Wright and Boyajian, don't think it's very likely that there is an alien civilization building planet-size structures around one of their stars. They think that something like a swarm of colliding comets around the star could make the most sense. But the star's behavior continues to be very unusual to the point that most potential explanations can't really be ruled out, including some very industrious aliens.

There have already been some efforts to check KIC 8462852 for alien signals that could come from an intelligent civilization, and that search has returned nothing so far.

Perhaps that will change this weekend though. Wright and colleague Andrew Siemion from the Berkeley SETI Research Center said Friday that they're hoping to using telescopes at UC Berkeley and the huge National Radio Astronomy Observatory radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, to check out the weirdest star in the galaxy while it's doing its very weird thing.

Source: This article was published cnet.com By Eric Mack

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