Comets or Aliens?
Let’s deal with the big question first. Has Planet Hunters discovered aliens?
The answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that all of the press who have written about us in the last 48 hours, sending a flood of volunteers to the site, are completely misguided. Let me backtrack…
A few weeks ago we submitted the ninth planet hunters paper to the journal, and that paper is now available on the arXiv service. Led by Tabetha Boyajian at Yale, it describes a rather unusual system (what the Atlantic called the most interesting star in the Galaxy), which was identified by Planet Hunters, four of whom (Daryll, Kian, Abe, Sam) are named on the paper*. They spotted a series of transits – which is normally what signifies the presence of a planet – but these were unusual.
The star’s light dimmed for a long period of time, loosing a fifth of its brightness for days or even months at a time. More mysteriously, the duration of the dips was not always the same, so this couldn’t possibly be a planet. This behaviour is unique amongst the more than a hundred thousand stars studied by Kepler – we have a bone fide mystery on our hands.I think the team’s immediate thoughts were that it must be the star itself that’s misbehaving, but stars aren’t known to behave like this and some careful follow up reveals it to be nothing more than a normal F-type star, slightly hotter and more massive than the Sun. So it’s not the star, and we’re sure too that it’s not Kepler itself misbehaving; something is really blocking the light from this star.One option is a disk of dust around the star. It’s from such disks that planets form (see DiskDetectives.org for more on this!) and so that wouldn’t be too surprising. Yet enough dust to cause the deep eclipses we see would glow brightly in the infrared, and there’s no sign of a strong infrared source around this star.
You can read the paper to find out what else we considered, but we think the best explanation is that there is a group of exocomets in orbit around the star. Comets are an appealing scenario to invoke because they would be faint in the infrared, and because they move on elliptical orbits, accounting for the random timing of the transits and their different lengths. Such a group of comets could have come from the breakup of a larger object, leaving a cloud of smaller remnants in similar orbits behind.
Much detailed work is needed to flesh out the details of this (pleasingly outlandish!) scenario. One possibility is that the recent passage of a nearby star triggered the cometary bombardment whose effects we’re seeing. The paper is currently in the peer review process and there is – of course – the possibility that there is a perfectly sensible solution we haven’t yet considered. However, so far over 100 professional scientists have had a look at the lightcurves and not managed to come up with a working solution.
One other proposed theory is that this pattern of behaviour is due to a fleet of alien spaceships in orbit around a star, a possibility considered by Jason Wright and collaborators here. Jason and co were tipped off about our discovery by the team, and it’s included in their paper as an object with ‘a bizarre light curve consistent with a “swarm” of megastructures’, much to the excitement of much of the internet. ‘Consistent with’ isn’t the same as ‘definitely is’, of course – and personally, my money is very firmly on the comet theory with a side bet on weird stellar behaviour – but until those models are properly investigated alien spaceships remain a possibility. The Wright paper points out this star is now a supremely interesting target for SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and we agree – I hope radio astronomers will go and listen for signals. We need more observations of transits in action, too, and will be trying to follow-up to try and work out what’s actually going on.In the meantime, who knows what else is lurking in the Kepler data? Planet Hunters is about finding planets, but this ability to identify the weird and unusual is one of the project’s great advantages. Get clicking at www.planethunters.org, and let us know through Talk if you find anything a little odd.
* – This isn’t the final version of the paper, and we have more names to mention too before we’re done.