Despite the advancements modern science has made, there are certain types of pattern recognition that the combination of the human eye and cognition does better than any man-made device.
So when the team behind NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope found their computer programs couldn’t analyze all the light from all the stars it sees, they turned to what they call “citizen scientists” for help. They set up “Planet Hunters” and welcomed participation by anyone – professional or otherwise – who had information to contribute.
In 2011, several participants reported a star positioned between the Cygnus and Lyra constellations as being “interesting” and “bizarre” because of the light pattern it emits.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” says Tabetha Boyajian, who is doing post-doctoral research at Yale. “It was really weird.”
Closer study by Kepler has revealed that the light pattern suggests a large amount of matter circling this celestial object. Its tight formation is typical of a young star, but by all standard criteria for judgment, this one appears to be mature.
Boyajian recently published a report describing the unusual light pattern, crediting several citizen scientists as co-authors. It postulates various scenarios that might explain the anomaly: instrument defects, the shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup or even a major impact like the one that produced our own moon.
Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the pattern. Researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations by searching for significant orbiting technological structure orbiting other stars much as – on a much smaller scale – an array of satellites surrounds Earth. Wright and his co-authors find the light pattern to be consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps a kind of technology designed to collect energy from the star.
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
Boyajian is now working with Wright and Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The three of them are preparing a proposal to point a massive radio dish at the star to see if it emits radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity.
If they receive substantial radio waves that way, they’ll move their efforts to the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which may be able to determine if the radio waves were emitted by a technological source – similar to those sent randomly into space by Earth’s radio stations.
The initial observation would take place in January, and the follow-up would come in the fall – or maybe even sooner.
“If we saw something exciting, we could ask the director for special allotted time on the VLA,” Wright says. “And in that case, we’d be asking to go on right away.”
What do you think? Could this be the first evidence of extraterrestrial life?