Of the approximately 150,000 stars observed by the Kepler Space Telescope, the bizarre flickering habits of one star are puzzling scientists and prompting talk of everything from comet fragments to the more unlikely possibility of alien life.
The unusual dips in light of the star, which is located approximately 1,500 light years away and is called KIC 8462852, were uncovered by professional and citizen scientists looking at Kepler Space Telescope data through the Planet Hunters program.
While much of the data from the deep space telescopes is processed by computer algorithms designed to look for patterns, Planet Hunters allows citizen scientists to give the data a manual look in case any unusual patterns are spotted, which is what happened in the mysterious case of KIC 8462852.
Tabetha Boyajian, an astronomer at Yale University wrote a paper, which was published in the Monthly Notes of the Royals Astronomical Society.
"It was kind of unbelievable that it was real data," Boyajian told the New Scientist. "We were scratching our heads. For any idea that came up there was always something that would argue against it."
While the paper explores what could be causing the star's strange behavior and doesn't mention aliens, Boyajin wrote "the scenario most consistent with the data in hand is the passage of a family of exocomet fragments, all of which are associated with a single previous breakup event."
With the theoretical comets orbiting the star and continuing to break up and spread, it could explain the dips in brightness. When the dips occurred, they would last anywhere from five to 80 days, according to the paper.
Jason Wright, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University who looked at the data wrote on his blog he found the star "inexplicable."
While Boyajian and her team had a tentative explanation, Wright said he "would put low odds on that being the right answer, but it’s the best one I’ve seen so far (and much more likely than aliens, I’d say)," referring to the speculation by some that the mysterious dips in light were due to massive structures built around the star by an advanced civilization.
"If I had to guess I’d say the star is young, despite all appearances," he wrote. "I can't back that up."
While the mystery remains to be solved definitely, scientists unfortunately won't have any new Kepler data to look at to help reach a conclusion. The telescope was damaged in 2013, leaving researchers without some more recent data about possible dips in light on the star -- if there were any.