As I sat down to write yesterday morning, I realized there was a natural segue between the 1977 ‘Wow!’ signal, and the idea that it had been caused by two comets, and KIC 8462852, the enigmatic star that has produced such an interesting series of light curves. What I had planned to start with today was: “Are comets becoming the explanation du jour for SETI?” But Centauri Dreams reader H. Floyd beat me to the punch, commenting yesterday: “Comets are quickly earning the David Drumlin Award for biggest SETI buzzkill.”

As played by Tom Skeritt, David Drumlin is Ellie Arroway’s nemesis in the film Contact, willing to knock down the very notion of SETI and then, in a startling bit of reverse engineering, turning into its champion as he claims credit for a SETI detection. And of course you remember controversial KIC 8462852 as the subject of numerous media stories first playing up the idea of alien mega-engineering, and then as quickly declaring the problem solved by a disrupted family of comets that moved between us and the star in their orbit.


But KIC 8462852 doesn’t yield to instant analysis, and it’s good to see a more measured piece now appearing on New York University’s ScienceLine site. The title, Tabby’s Mystery, is a nod to Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale University who noticed that the dips in light in Kepler data from the star were unusual. We have the Planet Hunters group to thank for putting Boyajian on the case, and a productive one it has turned out to be. As writer Sandy Ong notes, KIC 8462852 produced non-periodic dips in the star’s light that in one case reached 15 percent, and in another 22 percent.

Image: Yale’s Tabetha Boyajian, whose work examines possible causes for the unusual light curves detected at KIC 8462852.

‘Tabby’s star’ is one name KIC 8462852 has acquired, the other being the ‘WTF star’, doubtless standing for ‘where’s the flux,’ given the erratic changes to the light from the object. I’ve written a number of articles on this F3-class star and its light curves, noting not only the size of the two largest dips but also the fact that the dips, unlike those of a transiting planet, are not at all symmetric. Ong quotes Boyajian as saying: “The first one is a single dip that shows a very gradual decrease in brightness, then a sharp increase… The second dip has more structure to it with lots of ups and downs.” For more, see KIC 8462852: Cometary Origin of an Unusual Light Curve? and search the archives here, where five or six other articles on the matter are available.

Comets come into the mix because in Boyajian’s paper on KIC 8462852, they are named as a possibility. To refresh all our memories, let’s go back to the paper:

…we could be seeing material close to the pericenter of a highly eccentric orbit, reminiscent of comets seen in the inner Solar System at pericenter. We therefore envision a scenario in which the dimming events are caused by the passage of a series of chunks of a broken-up comet. These would have to have since spread around the orbit, and may be continuing to fragment to cause the erratic nature of the observed dips.

Comets moving close to the parent star would be given to thermal stresses, and could also be disrupted by close encounters with planets in the inner system. For that matter, tidal disruption by the star itself is a possibility. Boyajian and co-authors point out that a comet like Halley would break apart because of tidal forces if approaching as close as 0.02 to 0.05 AU.

We have WISE data from 2010 showing us that KIC 8462852 lacks the infrared signature a debris disk should produce. But the unusual light curves from Kepler began in the spring of 2011, so for a brief window between the two, there was the possibility of a planetary catastrophe, perhaps a collision between a planet and an asteroid, that would explain what Kepler saw. But Spitzer Space Telescope observations in 2015, analyzed by Massimo Marengo (Iowa State) and colleagues, found no trace of infrared excess at the later date, which seems to rule out a collision between large bodies and leaves the hypothesis of a family of comets still intact. See No Catastrophic Collision at KIC 8462852 for a discussion of Marengo’s work.


Image: Montage of flux time series for KIC 8462852 showing different portions of the 4-year Kepler observations with different vertical scalings. Panel ‘(c)’ is a blowup of the dip near day 793, (D800). The remaining three panels, ‘(d)’, ‘(e)’, and ‘(f)’, explore the dips which occur during the 90-day interval from day 1490 to day 1580 (D1500). Credit: Boyajian et al., 2015.

Perhaps we’re seeing a natural phenomenon we can’t yet identify. Ong cites Eric Korpela (UC-Berkeley) on the matter:

“I like the comet explanation although ‘comet’ might not be the right word,” says Eric Korpela, another astronomer from the Berkeley SETI Research Center. That’s because the core of such an object would have to be as large as Pluto in order to generate this kind of light, he explains.

Korpela and other astronomers believe the dimming may be due to some kind of natural phenomenon we haven’t yet seen anywhere in the universe. “We just haven’t looked at enough stars to know what’s out there,” he says.

What we saw yesterday with relation to the ‘Wow!’ signal is that we will soon have two chances to monitor the comets involved in Antonio Paris’ hypothesis for generating the signal. In like manner, we’ll have further observations of KIC 8462852. Ong notes that the Green Bank instrument in West Virginia is involved, as are the MINERVA array in Arizona, the MEarth project (Arizona and Chile), the LOFAR telescope in the Netherlands, and amateur observations from the American Association of Variable Star Observers, who will bring their own instruments to bear.

Oh to have a healthy Kepler in its original configuration returning new data on KIC 8462852! But despite the outstanding work being performed by the K2 ‘Second Light’ mission, the instrument is now working on different targets, and our ground-based telescopes have to do the job. What we need to know is if and when ‘Tabby’s star’ starts producing further light curves, and just what they look like. SETI observations have already been attempted using the Allen Telescope Array (see SETI: No Signal Detected from KIC 8462852) looking for interesting microwave emissions. None were found. Expect this enigmatic star to remain in the news for some time to come.

The Boyajian paper is Boyajian et al., “Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the Flux?” submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint). The Marengo paper is Marengo et al., “KIC 8462852 – The Infrared Flux,” Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 814, No. 1 (abstract / preprint). Jason Wright and colleagues discuss KIC 8462852 in the context of SETI signatures in Wright et al., “The ? Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures,” submitted to The Astrophysical Journal (preprint).