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Mysterious dimming star confounds scientists; theories include planet swallowing and aliens

Image credit: dreamstime

Scientists researching the memorably-named star KIC 8462852, have said they are confounded by the strange behaviour it exhibits, specifically its rapid, unexplained periods of dimming.

In 2015, Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope picked up its strange behaviour causing quite a stir in the astronomy community, but despite research efforts since then, scientists are still struggling to understand what causes the phenomena.

The latest findings from Carnegie’s Josh Simon and Benjamin Shappee and collaborators take a longer look at the star, going back to 2006, before its strange behaviour was detected by Kepler.

Astronomers had thought that the star was only getting fainter with time, but the new study shows that it also brightened significantly in 2007 and 2014. These unexpected episodes complicate or rule out nearly all the proposed ideas to explain the star’s observed strangeness.

Speculation to account for KIC 8462852’s dips in brightness have ranged from it having swallowed a nearby planet, to an unusually large group of comets orbiting the star, or an alien megastructure.

In general, stars can appear to dim because a solid object like a planet or a cloud of dust and gas passes between it and the observer, eclipsing and effectively dimming its brightness for a time.

Even before this evidence of two periods of increased brightness in the star’s past, the erratic dimming periods seen in KIC 8462852 were unlike anything astronomers had previously observed.

A study in 2016 found that from 2009 to 2012, KIC 8462852 dimmed by almost 1 per cent. Its brightness then dropped by an extraordinary 2 per cent over just six months, remaining at about that level for the final six months of Kepler observations.

The research team wanted to look at KIC 8462852 over a longer period of time. They went back and examined approximately 11 years of observing data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) and around two years of more-recent data from the high-precision All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN).

They found that the star has continued to dim since 2015 and is now 1.5 per cent fainter than it was in February of that year. What’s more, they showed that in addition to the dimming the star has experienced from 2009 to 2013 and 2015 to now, it underwent two periods of brightening.

“Up until this work, we had thought that the star’s changes in brightness were only occurring in one direction - dimming,” Simon explained. “The realisation that the star sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompatible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behaviour.”

“An important next step will be to determine how the colour of the star changes with time, especially during its brief dips in brightness,” added Shappee. “That information would help narrow down the possible explanations for why this star is doing such strange things.”

For example, if the dimming was caused by dust obscuring the star from us, then it would appear to get redder as it dimmed. If large objects were blocking the star’s light, then no colour change would be seen.

“We haven’t solved the mystery yet,” Simon concluded, “but understanding the star’s long-term changes is a key piece of the puzzle.”

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