Astrogator's Logs

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Starry, Starry Night

Julian Kay - Conjunction, Oct 2015

This morning, an hour before dawn, I put a coat over my sleeping togs and went outside.

In the west, the Hunter and his Hounds were accompanying the near-full moon, Sirius as bright as a mithril coin. In the east, where the black was starting to turn to indigo, was the jagged procession of the three bright candles – silvery Venus, golden Jupiter, bronze Mars.

It never ceases to grip me, this beauty that floods my breastbone with longing.

Part of this yearning is our eternal quest for companionship, recently sharpened by the report of odd light dips of the F-type star KIC 8462852 — nicknamed Tabby in honor of Tabetha Boyajian, the lead author of the study and the head of the crowdsourced Planet Hunters project that sifts through the Kepler Space Telescope findings.

About 1,500 light years away in the direction of the Cygnus constellation, the star is too old and stable to have a dust accretion disk. The dips could be the result of a cometary collision or gravity darkening from rotational flattening… but for the first time the SETI community uttered the words “Dyson swarm” with the slight, slight likelihood they might be more than fond wishes.

We have to be dispassionate and rigorous in this, as in all other scientific explorations – especially ones that we’re vested in. After all, pulsars were first designated LGM (Little Green Men) before the non-sentient basis of their regular pulsing was deciphered. But now there’s at least one reputable paper out that outlines how to distinguish megastructures from natural planetary bodies.

If there was a civilization around Tabby that was advanced enough to create sunlight-capturing structures, what we see may no longer exist or may have evolved into something “rich and strange”. More time on different types of telescopes may resolve this. In the end, the yearning will remain; we’re wired for wonder. There’s a reason (beyond the fact that I sorely miss my own beloved father – ally and confidante since toddlerhood) why the alien in the guise of Ted Arroway caressing Ellie’s cheek in Contact brings tears to my eyes.

Sources and Further Reading

Ross Andersen, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy” The Atlantic, October 13, 2015.

Boyajian et al, “Planet Hunters X. KIC – Where’s the Flux?” Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. (preprint)

Wright et al, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures”. Submitted to Astrophysical Journal (preprint)

Conjunction 2015 photo by Julian Kay. Left to right: Jupiter, Mars (faint), Moon, Venus.

11 Responses to “Starry, Starry Night”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. When I heard this story, it was the first time I can recall thinking about the possibility of intelligent alien life in other than theoretical terms. Quite a moment!

    Contact was a very affecting movie. It said more than it appeared to say.

  2. Athena says:

    Several SETI telescopes are looking even as we write these comments. We may know more in a month or two.

    I cannot agree more about Contact. It is among the films that are better than their book sources — and it was way ahead of the curve in embracing gentleness in a trope that skews to triumphalism.

  3. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I heard that KIC 8462852 has been given the lovely nickname Tabby’s Star and I heartily approve of the change. The actual designation is such a tongue-twister!

    Pulsars are an important example to keep in mind with situations like Tabby’s Star- even very odd discoveries can turn out to have utterly natural causes. Either way, new discoveries are exciting so I eagerly await any news!

    If there was a civilization around Tabby that was advanced enough to create sunlight-capturing structures, what we see may no longer exist or may have evolved into something “rich and strange”.

    Something to keep in mind with any SETI discoveries from stars other than the nearest to our Sun. The finite speed of light makes SETI a form of archeology- anything we find will be old.

    If sunlight-gathering structures were deployed around Tabby’s Star, I wonder if the civilization that created them was interested in star travel. Such structures would be one way of producing enough energy for relativistic travel, particularly if paired with a beam-rider propulsion system like Starwisp or Clifford Singer’s momentum-transfering pellet stream.

  4. Athena says:

    The consensus is that such a civilization would need to have reached Kardashev II level, which means they’d have reached our galactic neighborhood if they were interested in star travel. I think there will be a natural explanation for the light dips — but it’s always nice to dream!

  5. intrigued_scribe says:

    Fascinating discovery — even considering the likely cause of the light dips, it indeed is nice to imagine the alternative!

    I agree completely, regarding films like Contact.

  6. Athena says:

    Contact has aged much better than most SFF films.

  7. LJK says:

    Yes this is my hope from KIC 8675309, that no matter what it turns out to be – and I think it will be remarkable in any event – the actions and response from the professional science community show that it may finally be possible to get SETI beyond the radio realm it has been stuck in both literally and culturally since 1960.

    About Dyson Swarms/Shells/Spheres – I am amused at the folks across the net who have said the equivalent of “Oh I know what that is – it was on Star Trek!” 🙂

    The episode in question was ST:TNG “Relics” from 1992, the one where Scotty was resurrected. They used the typical solid Dyson Sphere even though Freeman Dyson did not envision such a thing, instead seeing it as a collection of individual habitats circling a star.

  8. LJK says:

    Speaking of Contact, I wrote a little something about it once:

  9. Athena says:

    Larry, it would be great and long past due if KIC (number string) and its undoubtedly equally fascinating siblings bring much-needed funding and fresh viewpoints to SETI.

    Today is hectic, but I plan to enjoy your Contact review at leisure this evening!

  10. LJK says:

    Thank you, Athena. I hope you enjoy it. Please note it was written in 1997 a few months after the film came out.

  11. Athena says:

    I’ve read about half of it — the film itself was a springboard for a lot of thoughts!