The SETI concepts now called ‘Dysonian’ are to my mind some of the most exhilarating ideas in the field. Dysonian SETI gets its name from the ‘Dyson spheres’ and ‘Dyson swarms’ analyzed by Freeman Dyson in a 1960 paper. This is a technology that an advanced civilization might use to harvest the energy of its star. You can see how this plays off Nikolai Kardashev’s classification of civilizations; Kardashev suggested that energy use is a way to describe civilizations at the broadest level. A Type II society is one that can use all the energy of its star.

In the film 2010, director Peter Hyams’ 1984 adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two (Del Rey, 1982), we see an instance of this kind of technology at work, though it has nothing to do with a Dyson sphere. In the film, a dark patch appearing on Jupiter signals the onset of what Martyn Fogg has called ‘stellification,’ the conversion of a gas giant into a small star. Rapidly replicating von Neumann machines — the famous monoliths — increase Jupiter’s density enroute to triggering nuclear fusion.

A new star is born, with consequences entertainingly explored in the novel’s epilogue. Without monoliths to work with, Fogg described another way of triggering a gas giant’s fusion reaction in a 1989 paper. A small black hole could be put into orbit around the planet, its orbit gradually sinking toward the planetary center. Accretion will eventually cause the new star to shine like a red dwarf, its brightness steadily increasing over a 50 million year period. Parts of the Jovian satellite system could be rendered continuously habitable over a period of about 100 million years, even as the star-builders exploit its energies via orbiting power stations.


Image: 2010’s cinematic depiction of runaway replication in progress on Jupiter. Credit: Peter Hyams/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

True, the process would one day have to be arrested, for runaway accretion will eventually, according to Fogg’s calculations, present a danger to these worlds, though presumably the civilization that can create the new star in the first place can also figure out how to tame it. These timeframes are extravagant, of course, and the engineering is far beyond our own, but as Milan ?irkovi? points out in a new paper, we should consider such stellified objects as potential SETI signatures. Dysonian SETI thus expands to a broad search for anomalous uses of energy.

Having never observed an extraterrestrial civilization, can we plausibly look for one? Here’s how ?irkovi?, the author of The Astrobiological Landscape (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and numerous papers, frames the question:

Copernicanism implies that we should reason as if humanity is a typical member of the set of all intelligent species evolved in naturalistic manner in all epochs. Therefore, what we expect in humanity’s future is also likely to occur at some point in the evolutionary trajectory of at least a significant subset of other intelligent species, both those present in the Galaxy nowadays, and those from past or future. If humans could perform an engineering feat X at some point in our future for clearly utilitarian reasons, we should expect at least some other intelligent species in the Galaxy to have already performed the same (or similar enough) X, provided they are sufficiently older from us. In accordance with such “mirroring” of human future and possible evolutionary trajectories of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in the Galaxy, we may wish to investigate how the procedure of stellification might look from afar and consider it a new form of detection signature in the sense of SETI studies.

Notice that whatever the target, Dysonian SETI makes no assumptions about communications or contact with other civilizations. When we work at radio or optical wavelengths, we are looking for ephemeral signals, most likely some kind of a beacon that announces the existence of the culture that built it. The new Dysonian strategy puts detection times into a much deeper timeframe. We make no social or cultural assumptions and, in fact, can make no conjectures about the beings behind any artifact we find in our searches. One exciting consequence is that a SETI detection may already be present in our abundant stores of astronomical data.

The study of the anomalous star KIC 8462852 likewise touches on Dysonian SETI. While there have been brief attempts to study this object for evidence of power beaming (see SETI: No Signal Detected from KIC 8462852), the star has also been the subject of intense investigation historically, with researchers like Bradley Schaeffer and Michael Hippke reaching different conclusions about whether or not old photographic plates show a steady dimming. Here we’re using astrophysics with no cultural assumptions to delve into a phenomenon that is probably natural, but one so mysterious that we still can’t rule out advanced engineering.

But back to stellification and the question of energy. Let’s ask this: If there were a civilization capable of engineering at a solar system-wide scale, what would it do? The creation of a small star within a solar system is one way to proceed, and in Clarke’s novel it paves the way for the creation of new life on Europa. But the material for stellification is hardly confined to a single system. Usefully, we have large numbers of brown dwarfs and unbound, ‘rogue’ planets between the stars. As ?irkovi? notes, we have resources here not just for fuel but for habitation and industry with significant amounts of metals in relatively shallow gravitational wells.

The key question is, what sort of signature would this kind of stellification produce? More on this tomorrow, as we look a little deeper into Dysonian methods and speculate not only on the uses of thermonuclear fusion but the utilization of other kinds of energy. For if we’re trying to find evidence of astroengineering, extreme astrophysical sources may be the places to look.

The paper is ?irkovi?, “Stellified Planets and Brown Dwarfs as Novel Dysonian SETI Signals,” in press at JBIS. Martyn Fogg’s paper is “Stellifying Jupiter: A first step to terraforming the Galilean satellites,” JBIS 42 (1989), 587-592..