Space photo

Even as they acknowledge that it’s not likely, legitimate scientists are speculating about the possibility of alien life around a star named KIC 8462852 (a.k.a. “Tabby’s Star”). Today they’re going to start searching for those hypothetical aliens using the most powerful alien-hunting equipment available.

Every now and then, Tabby’s Star dims by as much as 22 percent. There’s no good explanation for what might cause such a dramatic eclipse. Even a Jupiter-sized planet would only block a tiny fraction of that. A family of extra-large comets is currently the best explanation, but even that doesn’t quite fit–scientists would expect to see more infrared (heat) coming from Tabby’s Star if comets were the case. Penn State astronomer Jason Wright proposed that a huge structure built by aliens to harvest light from the star could cause a similarly large blockage, but the lack of extra infrared radiation pours cold water on this hypothesis as well.

Regardless, Tabby’s Star is one of the most mysterious stars in the universe, so amateur and professional astronomers have been pointing their scopes toward it. They’ve searched for light and radio communications coming from any potential mega-civilizations living in the area, but to no avail so far.

Now they’re giving it everything they’ve got. The star’s discoverer, Tabetha Boyajian, is teaming up with the Breakthrough Listen project to search the radio waves around KIC 8462852 in the most thorough search for an alien presence yet.

Breakthrough Listen is the $100 million baby of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner. The project is working with several radio telescopes around the globe, including the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the Parkes Observatory in Australia, and FAST, China’s giant alien-hunting scope. Milner’s team has developed technology that hooks up to the telescopes and can simultaneously scan billions of different radio channels to search for patterns that might indicate intelligent life.

Starting tonight, Boyajian, Wright, and astronomer Andrew Siemion (the latter two are part of the Breakthrough Listen initiative) will use the Green Bank telescope to listen for alien life around KIC 8462852. They’ll observe the star for eight hours per night on three separate nights over the next two months. Analyzing all those billions of channels will take some time–a month at least.

In tonight’s observations, the team will be scanning the 1-12 gigahertz range, which covers the frequencies that cell phones and satellite television operates, among other technologies. The scans will be “sensitive enough to a detect signal with about the same energy as a powerful aircraft surveillance radar that we have here on this planet,” said Siemion in a webcast this afternoon. “We would be sensitive to technology no more advanced than our own if indeed it exists on Tabby’s Star.”

If aliens are noisily living around Tabby’s Star, this is our best shot at finding them. However, even the scientists on this team agree that’s very, very, incredibly unlikely. Past events suspected to be alien occurrences–like the startlingly regular radio pulses that come from pulsars–have always turned out to have natural explanations. Aliens should always be the last guess, but the team thinks it’s worth giving Tabby’s Star a scan just in case.

Unfortunately, the search for alien life doesn’t have a way to prove that aliens don’t exist–there’s always the possibility that we’re not looking in the right place, at the right time, on the right wavelengths, or for the correct patterns.

“As long as Tabby’s star remains a mystery, and a possible explanation–although perhaps a remote one–is that there is an advanced civilization inhabiting the area around the star, we’re going to conduct SETI observations,” said Siemion. “This is absolutely not the end of the story with SETI and Tabby’s Star.”

Until scientists can find out what previously undiscovered phenomenon is causing the star’s mysterious blinking, aliens are pretty much as good an explanation as we’ve got.

Update 5pm Eastern: This post was updated with new information from a live webcast.