Scientists can’t explain what huge object is blocking the light from this distant star

It’s not every day that we have permission to throw “Aliens?” out there in relation to a confounding astronomical discovery – in fact, I don’t think we ever have. But the discovery of a strange pattern of light surrounding a distant star called KIC 8462852 has seen even the most sensible astronomers throw their arms up with a, “Sure, why not?” arguing that the possibility of advanced alien technology can’t reasonably be ignored.

“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilisation to build,” Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University in the US, told The Atlantic.

First up, though, a little about the star in question: KIC 8462852. Located about 1,500 light-years away between the Cygnus and Lyre constellations of our Milky Way galaxy, KIC 8462852 is brighter, hotter, and more massive than the Sun.

It was first discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in 2009, and scientists have been tracking the light it emits ever since, along with the light of another 150,000 or so newly discovered stars. They do this because it’s the best way to locate distant planets – slight, periodic dips in a star’s brightness signal the fact that it might have one or more large objects orbiting it in a regular fashion.

These brightness dips are usually very slight, with the stars dimming by less than 1 percent every few days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the planet’s orbit, says astronomer Phil Plait at Slate.

What makes KIC 8462852 such a strange star to study is that not only are there way more dips of brightness than expected, these dips are highly irregular. There’s no periodic orbiting going on here, just a bunch of strange, light-blocking shapes with no discernible pattern to them.

And these dimming effects are significant. Scientists are reporting that at one point, the amount of starlight dropped by 15 percent, and then at another, 22 percent. And this tells us a whole lot, says Plait:

“Straight away, we know we’re not dealing with a planet here. Even a Jupiter-sized planet only blocks roughly 1 percent of this kind of star’s light, and that’s about as big as a planet gets. It can’t be due to a star, either; we’d see it if it were. And the lack of a regular, repeating signal belies both of these as well. Whatever is blocking the star is big, though, up to half the width of the star itself!”

The most obvious explanation for hundreds of irregular dimming events is that KIC 8462852 has a mass of space junk – all kinds of rocks and dust of varying shapes and sizes – circling it in tight formation, says Ross Andersen at The Atlantic. The only problem is that this only occurs when a star is young, and the evidence points to KIC 8462852 being mature. “If it were young, it would be surrounded by dust that would give off extra infrared light,” says Andersen. “There doesn’t seem to be an excess of infrared light around this star.”

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” one of the researchers, Tabetha Boyajian from Yale University in the US, told him. “It was really weird.”

So what’s going on here? There are a number of reasonable possibilities to consider, and yep, aliens is actually one of them. First off, the scientists have already ruled out the possibility that the information they’re working with is faulty. “We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out,” says Boyajian.

The best explanation we have is that at one point, another star passed into KIC 8462852’s system and the disturbance of gravity caused a huge mess of comets to be pulled in towards it before being expelled again. And there just so happens to be another star close enough to KIC 8462852 to make this a possibility.

“But that would be an extraordinary coincidence, if that happened so recently, only a few millennia before humans developed the tech to loft a telescope into space. That’s a narrow band of time, cosmically speaking,” says Andersen.

And then there’s the question of the 22 percent dimming. Could a mass of comets really block that much light? When astronomer Jason Wright from Penn State got a look at the data, he said we need to consider that perhaps we’ve caught an advanced alien civilisation in the process of building something massive near KIC 8462852.

Plait points to the so-called Dyson Sphere from several science fiction stories: a gigantic sphere made of solar panels that completely encircles a star. And he’s not opposed to the idea:

“I actually kinda like it. I’m not saying it’s right, mind you, just that it’s interesting. Wright isn’t some wild-eyed crackpot; he’s a professional astronomer with a solid background. As he told me when I talked to him over the phone, there’s ‘a need to hypothesise, but we should also approach it skeptically’ (paraphrasing a tweet by another astronomer, David Grinspoon), with which I wholeheartedly agree.”

What does that mean? It means we’re allowed to get a little bit excited! Not because aliens are a likely possibility, but because we’re in the middle of an awesome mystery the likes of which we haven’t seen before in the history of space exploration. Word is that SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute scientists are considering devoting their time to it, and hopefully more research teams will get involved too. We seriously cannot wait to see what they come up with.

Source: Scientists can’t explain what huge object is blocking the light from this distant star

Scientists can’t explain what huge object is blocking the light from this distant star

NASA Announcing New Alien Planet Discoveries

Artist's impression of a super-Earth, Kepler-62f. It's unclear how much atmosphere is required to make a planet habitable.
Artist’s impression of a super-Earth, Kepler-62f. It’s unclear how much atmosphere is required to make a planet habitable. CREDIT: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

NASA will announce new discoveries by the agency’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope during a press conference Thursday (July 23) at noon EDT (1600 GMT). Follow along live in the window below, courtesy of a NASA audio feed: Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream Participanting in the teleconference are:

  • John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington
  • Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California
  • Jeff Coughlin, a Kepler research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California
  • Didier Queloz, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Here’s a look at NASA TV’s upcoming schedule, direct from the space agency:

2 p.m., Friday, July 24 – NASA News Conference – Update on Pluto (all channels)
1:30 p.m., Thursday, July 30 – ISS Expedition 44 Interviews with Fox News Channel’s “America’s News Headquarters” and Reuters TV with NASA Flight Engineer Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (all channels)
12:30 p.m., Friday, July 31 – ISS Expedition 44 In-Flight Educational Event with the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland and NASA Flight Engineers Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren (starts at 12:35 p.m.) (all channels)
9:30 a.m., Monday, August 10 – ISS Expedition 44 Russian Spacewalk Coverage (starts at 9:45 a.m.) (all channels)
6 a.m., Friday, August 14 – ISS Progress 58 Undocking Coverage (Undocking scheduled at 6:12 a.m. ET) (all channels)
NASA Satellite TV Information:
NASA TV is available in continental North America, Alaska and Hawaii on AMC-18C. A Digital Video Broadcast (DVB) compliant Integrated Receiver Decoder (IRD) is needed for reception. Below are parameters for each channel: Uplink provider = AMC 18 C Transponder = 3C 105 degrees W C-Band Downlink Frequency: 3760 MHz Downlink Polarity: Vertical Transmission Format = DVB-S, 4:2:0 FEC = ¾ Data Rate = 38.80 Mbps Symbol Rate = 28.0681 Modulation: QPSK/DVB-S Source: FOLLOW LIVE @ 12 pm ET: NASA Announcing New Alien Planet Discoveries
NASA Announcing New Alien Planet Discoveries

NASA’s Next Giant Leap

Artist's concept image of a boot print on the moon and on Mars.

The first humans who will step foot on Mars are walking the Earth today.

It was 45 years ago that Neil Armstrong took the small step onto the surface of the moon that changed the course of history. The years that followed saw a Space Age of scientific, technological and human research, on which we have built the modern era. We stand on a new horizon, poised to take the next giant leap—deeper into the solar system. The Apollo missions blazed a path for human exploration to the moon and today we are extending that path to near-Earth asteroids, Mars and beyond.

Technology drives exploration and we’re building on the Apollo program’s accomplishments to test and fly transformative, cutting-edge technologies today for tomorrow’s missions. As we develop and test the new tools of 21st century spaceflight on the Journey to Mars, we once again will change the course of history.

The Path to Mars begins with research on Earth and extends beyond its bounds, aboard the orbiting laboratory of the International Space Station, with our international partners. Some 250 miles above our heads, astronauts are conducting hundreds of experiments not possible on Earth, teaching us how humans can live, work and thrive for longer periods in space.

On the 45th Anniversary of Apollo 11’s return to Earth, actor Seth Green moderated a Comic-Con panel with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Planetary Division Director Jim Green, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Systems Engineer Bobak Ferdowsi.

To help this nation send humans to deep space and return them to Earth safely, engineers across the country are developing a new space transportation capability, destined to travel far beyond our home planet. The Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket will be the most advanced space vehicles ever built. Together, they will take us farther into the solar system than humans have ever traveled. They are our spaceship to Mars and beyond.

As we build on the lessons of the space station and turn our eyes toward Mars, we are designing missions to take us to a “proving ground” around the moon called cis-lunar space, where some of the very building blocks of the solar system can be explored.

Near-Earth asteroids provide a unique opportunity to test the new technologies and capabilities we need for future human missions to Mars. Around 2019, we’ll launch a robotic mission to rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid. The spacecraft either will capture an asteroid in its entirety or retrieve a boulder off of a much larger asteroid, then redirect the asteroid mass to a stable orbit around the moon.

In the mid 2020s, astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft, launched by SLS, will explore that asteroid and return to Earth with samples.

The new technologies we test through the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and the new human spaceflight capabilities we prove by sending astronauts to study the asteroid, will make important advances to safely send humans to Mars. This includes tools like Solar Electric Propulsion, a highly efficient way to help us transport large objects and heavy cargo to support future Mars missions. NASA will continue to make significant investments in new technologies vital to achieving exploration goals. This includes advancements in entry, descent and landing technologies such as Low Density Supersonic Decelerators.

Sending humans to deep space around the moon also will help advance techniques for space operations on and around Mars and its moons. The space around our moon is different than low-Earth orbit but very similar to what an Orion spacecraft will experience on the trip to and from Mars. For instance, solar and cosmic radiation is intense. We also can use cis-lunar space to begin practicing activities in deep space, like spacewalks, and learn to cope with delays in communication with Earth because of the distance.

Mars beckons us to explore. Missions to Mars could answer some of the fundamental questions of humanity: Does life exist beyond Earth? Could humans live on Mars in the future?

The journey to answer these questions has risks, but the rewards for humanity are worth it. Meeting the remaining challenges ahead of us to send humans to Mars will take the ingenuity and innovation of the entire nation and our international partners.

This next decade of exploration will be an exciting time of rapid technological development and testing. In December 2014, we’ll conduct the first test flight of Orion. In 2015, the New Horizons Mission will fly by Pluto and see the icy world up close for the first time. 2016 will see launches of two other Mars missions, InSight and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, as well as asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx. By the end of 2017, U.S. commercial companies will begin launching astronauts from U.S. soil to the space station. In Fiscal Year 2018, we’ll fly SLS and Orion together on a test mission to a stable orbit around the moon called a “Distant Retrograde Orbit” (DRO), where astronauts will explore a relocated asteroid in the 2020s. In 2018, Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will extend our senses farther into space and time, to see light from the universe’s first stars. In about 2019, we’ll launch the robotic spacecraft to capture and redirect an asteroid. In 2020, we’ll send a new rover to Mars, to follow in the footsteps of Curiosity, search for evidence of life, and pave the way for future human explorers. In 2021, SLS and Orion will launch humans on the first crewed mission of the combined system. In the mid-2020s, astronauts will explore an asteroid redirected to DRO around the moon, and return home with samples that could hold clues to the origins of the solar system and life on Earth. In doing so, those astronauts will travel farther into the solar system than anyone has ever been.

Source: NASA’s Next Giant Leap

NASA’s Next Giant Leap