Is Anybody Out There? Astrophysicists Turn Attention To Potential Megastructure In Space

Oct 23, 2015

The star “KIC 8462852” might not mean much to the average person. That is, it might not have until October 19, when the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute announced it would begin searching for signs of orbiting intelligent life around the star. The evidence? Fluctuations in the light coming off the star that might indicate a “megastructure” in orbit around it. Point Park University professor and astrophysicist Brendan Mullan sat down with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer to explain what has the scientific community so interested.

“It’s probably not gonna be a megastructure,” Mullan clarified. “It’s more likely something natural that the universe is throwing at us just to say ‘Hey, I’m a crazy universe, there’s new stuff out there every day.’”

Still, the possibility remains. The object was originally discovered by the Kepler space telescope, Mullen said. The telescope searches for stars dimming, which would indicate a planet passing in front of them. However, stars that have planets around them dim at regular intervals. KIC dims randomly and for long periods of time, indicating something other than planets passing in front of it.

Furthermore, usually when an object passes in front of a star, it reflects the light off as heat. This is not occurring in the case of whatever is in front of KIC. Mullan said the potential megastructure could be something like solar panels utilized by an alien civilization to gain power.

While such an idea may sound like the work of science fiction, humans might not be so far off from using something similar. Mullan said the concept of a megastructure used to harvest solar energy may be used by humanity within a hundred years or so.

Mullan said that a civilization would be a level 2 on the Kardashev scale. The Kardashev scale, or K-scale, measures how well a civilization utilizes energy from the universe. Humans would stand around level 0 or 1, Mullan explained.

Still, Mullan says that aliens being responsible for KIC’s dimming is unlikely. The original report on the dimming did not mention aliens, referring to only natural possibilities.

“As an astronomer, [aliens] is the last explanation you should be seeking when you see something anomalous like this star,” Mullan said.

However, Mullan believes talking about aliens as a possibility is fun to do and it should not be entirely ruled out.

“It’s probably not aliens but he, who knows?” Mullan said. “Might be fun.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.