Also known by its designation KIC 8462852, Tabby’s Star continues to perplex astronomers and mainstream science bloggers.
News broke in September 2015 after citizen scientists noted the abrupt, non-periodic dimming of this distant F-type star. F-type stars are like our sun, but bigger and hotter. Hard line skeptics dismissed the phenomenon as comets, but evidence has yet to emerge supporting this hypothesis. Currently astronomers and cosmologists can’t imagine how ~648,000 giant comets could coordinate their orbits to dim a star over the last hundred years.
Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University combed through Harvard’s archive of astronomical plates from the last century, finding there’s been a steady dimming of Tabby’s Star. Faced with a deepening mystery Michael Hippke, self-proclaimed (and cringey) “gentleman scientist“, and Vanderbilt University doctoral student Michael Lund earnestly tried, and failed, to disprove Schaefer’s discovery. There’s nothing wrong with the Kepler observatory that first imaged KIC 8462852, nor Harvard’s plates, and Schafer’s methodology is watertight.
Spicing up the story is Penn State’s Jason Wright, suggesting the dimming’s cause might be an alien megastructure like a Dyson swarm or sphere. The invocation of aliens by straightlaced scientists without outright dismissal by their peers means more money from ad impressions, and angry flame wars in comment sections around the web. Also aliens?
To puzzle out this anomaly, the only sensible course of action is to continue surveying the sky, and reviewing past data for other stars with similar characteristics. Should one be found, astronomers can study it, compare it, then begin narrowing down the suspects behind the strangeness 1,480 light years away from us.
This search might take longer than hoped. Daryll LaCourse, profligate Kepler data miner, announced to the internet how Tabby’s Star is unique.
The Kepler spacecraft is now observing a series of new ecliptic fields (K2) and has accumulated observations of ~165,000 additional targets. Continued visual inspection of these public data has failed to recover an analog to KIC 8462852. Lack of such a detection suggests that the aperiodic dimming indeed represents a rare astrophysical phenomenon, regardless of the true root cause mechanism involved.
For now Homo sapiens should content themselves with Tabetha Boyajian’s successful Kickstarter to continuously monitor her star, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.