A swarm of alien satellites may explain one star's strange behavior

There's something extremely odd about KIC 8462852, a star 1,481 light-years away from Earth. It demonstrates irregular, seemingly unnatural, flickering patterns -- usually, scientists detect a faraway planet by measuring the regular drops in brightness that occur as it passes in front of its sun, but KIC 8462852 is different. It exhibits extreme drops in brightness, up to 22 percent at one moment, and there appears to be no pattern to the light show. For comparison, a planet the size of Jupiter normally drops in brightness by just 1 percent as it crosses the sun, according The Washington Post. The star's weird behavior remains unexplained, but scientists have a few ideas about its origins -- including a massive alien structure.

The alien theory is a long-shot, according to Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian and Penn State University researcher Jason Wright, but they think it's worth considering in KIC 8462852's case. Wright helped develop a protocol for spotting alien civilizations, The Washington Post reports, and he says the flickering around this star could be "a swarm of megastructures" built to collect solar energy.

"Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build," Wright says.

Researchers are considering other natural explanations for KIC 8462852's dimming, including monstrous crashes along the asteroid belt or another giant collision in the star's neighborhood, resulting in unpredictable debris patterns. Or, a group of comets orbiting the star could have been disrupted by another star passing by, sending ice and rocks flying and explaining the dips in light. There are issues with all of these explanations -- for example, it would be nearly impossible for us to catch the comet theory in action on a telescope that's only been active since 2009. Nearly impossible, a lot like spotting an alien megastructure orbiting a planet. And remember, the light we receive is old, meaning any potential structures around KIC 8462852 were there back in Earth's 6th century, The Washington Post says.

Wright, Boyajian and Andrew Siemion (director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley) plan to aim a huge radio dish at KIC 8462852 to see if it emits radio waves indicative of technological activity, The Atlantic reports. The first observation is scheduled for January, with a second next fall.

[Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]