There has to be recognizable life out there, somewhere close enough we can find it. That’s the idea behind SETI, and also the huge new alien-hunting Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China. Even the scientists who work on the big radio telescopes acknowledge the odds are long. But evidently they’re not long enough to convince us the search is hopeless. In all probability, there has to be life somewhere else, and we’re bound and determined to find it.
Ordinarily it might be tough to pick a place to start. SETI is aware of the newly discovered planet in the habitable zone around our near neighbor Proxima Centauri B, which makes it a rather more interesting subject of scrutiny. But there’s another tempting target in the news of late: KIC 8462852, also called Tabby’s Star, or the “alien megastructure star.” Tabetha Boyajian, who discovered it, is teaming up with Breakthrough Listen to train SETI’s senses on Tabby’s Star and try to find out what’s going on there.
Every so often, Tabby’s Star gets dimmer, and nobody knows why. It just doesn’t fit with any of the things we know happen to stars. While my personal favorite explanation is a Dyson sphere under construction, the odds are overwhelming that it’s not aliens making this star flicker. Even though the visible light from the star is being blocked, we should still see a whole lot more infrared than we do. So it’s probably not a Dyson sphere around an otherwise unremarkable star, and it’s probably not a planet blocking our view with an edge-on orbit, either. As with any other unsolved mystery, the only way forward is making more observations until we know why our prior work has proved unfruitful.
Breakthrough Listen is the open-source pet project of philanthropist and entrepreneur Yuri Milner, as well as Anne Druyan, Stephen Hawking, and other scientific luminaries. It’s teamed up with [email protected] so that people can avoid duplicating each other’s work. The Breakthrough initiatives are aware of Alpha Centauri as well; they’re planning to send a probe there, in fact, under the auspices of Project Starshot.
Boyajian, the Breakthrough Listen project and the SETI scientists will also be using the Green Bank radio telescope to stare at the dimming star over the next couple of months. They’re planning to gather about a petabyte of data on “billions of radio channels,” which will take much longer to analyze than it took to collect. The hope is that some repeating pattern will show itself, somewhere in the radio band, and explain by its nature what’s happening with this star.
“Everyone, every SETI program telescope, I mean every astronomer that has any kind of telescope in any wavelength that can see Tabby’s star has looked at it,” said Andrew Siemion, co-director of Breakthrough Listen, in a statement. “It’s been looked at with Hubble, it’s been looked at with Keck, it’s been looked at in the infrared and radio and high energy, and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI experiments. Nothing has been found.”