Monday, October 19, 2015

KIC 846285

As I'm sure many of you have heard, the Kepler Space Telescope found something interesting about 1400 light years away. There is an old star that is dimming over 20% at time during the last 4 years of study. Now, when a planet occludes a star, the dip in brightness is usually around 1%, so a 20% + drop is pretty astounding. If this was a young star, then it could possibly be chalked up to debris that will likely eventually become planets, but that's not the case. So what is it? There have been theories from planetary collisions, comet swarms, to Dyson Sphere objects built by an alien civilization.

In case you don't know what a Dyson Sphere is, they are hypothetical structures that would be built around a star to collect all of its solar energy output. It's the kind of thing you'd only see in sci-fi (one was part of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation).

While the idea of why KIC 846285 is dimming so much being caused by aliens is certainly an attention-grabbing headline, I sincerely doubt that is what's going on there. Still, if it is an advanced alien society building Dyson objects, that would give me hope for humanity for several reasons. One is simply for the knowledge that we are not alone in the cosmos. The ramifications of this would send shockwaves through not only the scientific community, but religion and everyday culture as well. Even if that culture has died out in the 1400 years it took that light to get here, the simple fact that there has been intelligent life other than humans in the cosmos would be amazing to say the least. Plus, since KIC 846285 is so close (cosmologically speaking), it would make the theories of Duncan Forgan, who figures there are anywhere from 361 to 37,964 intelligent species in the galaxy right now, seem like undershots. Out of the 100,000 light years, there are 2 intelligent species within 1400 light years would certainly point that the galaxy may be more densely populated than originally thought. Lastly, it would give me hope that there is a society out there that shows that survival is possible. Survival not just against everything the universe can throw at a little ball of rock, but that survival against the odds we place in our own way can be overcome. All the petty political, social, religious, racial, and financial differences can be overcome to allow not just survival, but also the colonization of the rest of the solar system and maybe beyond. I really do think that if humankind is going to survive into the far future, it will have to be in the rest of solar system. However, we can't seem to see past our own bank accounts, our own gods, even simply the color of our own skin to realize that we're all in this together. That will likely damn us to extinction sooner than another world-killer asteroid.

Since I don't think that it is aliens (I'm leaning more on the side of planetary collision or some other giant mass spreading event), is it really worth looking at KIC 846285? Absolutely. We've found something outside of the norm. Even if alien intelligence isn't the cause that's still exciting and certainly "sexy" from the standpoint of astronomers getting to study something strange that will expand our knowledge of the cosmos. That's exciting, certainly moreso than just throwing "Aliens" into a title to get the clicks.

Still, it is fun to dream...

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