Sunday, 18 October 2015

KIC 8462852 - An Alien Civilisation?

Red Star

Okay, you may have not picked up on this interesting story that hit my Facebook feed this week (I get a lot of news stories through Facebook namely because I follow a number of newspapers - its my main source of news these days) but apparently some scientists have discovered a star that may have an alien civilisation inhabiting it. The reason they came to this conclusion is that the distortion that stars produce when they may have planets oribiting them is so great that they have concluded that it is either a swarm of comets and asteroids, or a Dyson Sphere

Okay, scientists generally put 'alien civilisations' as the last possibility for any astronomical discovery, though when they first picked up the radio waves eminating from a quasar, they did jump up and down suggesting that they had picked up alien communications (though as it turned out it wasn't the case). Sure, we do have some Christian sects that love using the line "Yeah, there are extra-terrestrial entities out there - God and his angels" but when we are talking about extra-terrestrial beings most of us don't put God into that category (and if we do it would be more akin to extra-dimensional). However, the idea that this star is the home of some aliens is certainly intriguing.

Some Things about Astronomy

I'll first say a few things about how they work out whether a planet is orbiting a star. Basically when there is a planet orbiting a star parts of the light will be blocked, however that blocking tends to be fairly regular, and quite minor. I still remember when they first worked this out as they had discovered a star that they believed had four planets the size of Jupiter orbiting it. However the problem we have is that this is all speculation. We can only adduce that the star has planets around them based on the light being blocked. We can't get a close up to those stars to actually be able to see those planets.

However, the amount of light that is blocked is generally quite small, which is why scientists are so baffled when it comes to KIC 8462852 (I think they have run out of names for stars so they have started using numbers, though if you think you have a better name for a star you can always pay some money to the Sydney Observatory - mind they have now given the star the name WTF star, which I must say sounds heaps better). Apparently we have about 20% of the light being blocked, which suggests that there is more than just planets around the star. The theory is that it could be a swarm of comets, though due to the apparent age of WTF star (it is too old) that may not be possible (though one scientist has suggested that maybe a collapsing dwarf star has pulled these comets into WTF star's orbit). 

WTF Star Location
Another thing we must remember is the distance WTF star is from the Earth, namely 1480 light years. You probably already know this but a light year is the distance that light travels in a year, but the other thing about light years is that when you look at something a light year away you are seeing what it looked liked a year ago. This means that when we are looking at WTF Star we are looking at it as it was 1500 years ago, which means that we are seeing the star as it was at the time when the Roman Empire had just collapsed - that is an awful long time ago. That means that if this is an alien civilisation then we are looking at the civilisation as it was one and a half millenia ago, and considering the advancements that we have made in that time, no doubt there may have been great changes in that society as well.

An Advanced Civilisation

There is a maxim that say that once everything has been discounted then the final answer, no matter how absurd, must be the correct one. Okay, we have only just discovered this star, and there are still a number of hypotheses that we have yet to discount (such as the comet or asteroid theory). The other thing that we need to remember is that there is a huge amount that we don't know about the universe, despite the fact that we have people running around claiming that scientists have all the answers. Check out this video that I recently watched on Youtube:

Anyway, let us suggest that what we have discovered is actually evidence of an advanced civilisation, and that what is causing the light to be blocked is actually a Dyson Sphere, then what does that mean for us? Well, first of all since the star is one and a half light millennia away I would say not much. Even if we sent a single there tomorrow that said 'Hi, how you going?' they aren't going to get that signal until one an a half millennia in the future. As for launching a rocket to take us there - you can forget it - at today's technology that won't be happening because you will need some form of FTL drive, or what one would consider a generation ship (namely a massive spaceship designed to have an entire civilisation live on it).

So, let us put aside for a moment the distance this star is from us and the length of time that it will take to reach them (considering that by the time we get there for all we know the civilisation may have died out) the question should be 'should we contact them?'. My response would be an emphatic NO. Look, these guys have managed to build a structure so huge that it blocks out 20% of the light of their sun. Now, if this structure is a Dyson Sphere (an super-massive structure poitulated by a guy named Dyson that is designed to collect energy from a star) this indicates that these guys are super intelligent and super advanced. If we were to contact them it would be like the Australian Aboriginals making contact with the British Empire to negotiate a trade deal - we all know what the British thought about Australia when they first arrived (hint - they called it Terra Nullis).

Remember, when the Europeans built their boats and headed out to all corners of the world it wasn't to build peaceful relationships with the inhabitants of other continents, it was to conquer, subjugate, and colonise. Even if these creatures are nowhere near as barbaric and greedy us, we still need to remember that they are much more advanced than we are, and considering that we are looking at their civilisation as it was 1500 years ago, then no doubt they have advanced much further since then (if they haven't been destroyed that is). This means that to them we are either a planet that is ripe for colonisation, or a threat to their existence, which means making contact is probably going to be a really bad idea.

Technological Superiority

Finally I wish to say a couple of things about their technology. While this is speculative, if they can create a Dyson sphere this is it also possible that they would have been able to develop some form of faster-than-light drive? If they haven't is it then possible that such a drive is not possible? Well, that may be the case, but it may also be the possibility that since space is huge, and that our existence doesn't draw that much attention to us (the earliest radio waves have so far only travelled about 150 light years into space) it could simply be that they just don't know that we are here. Even if our radio signals have hit an advanced society, we must also remember that to be able to pick up these signals the society needs to point their receivers in the direction of Earth. Since space is so huge, and there is nothing about our star that screams out 'there are sentient beings on this planet', the chances of such a civilisation accidentally doing that is minimal at best.

Dyson SphereAs for the Dyson Sphere, we also must remember that it is a theoretical structure. The concept has always baffled me because one of the reason that Earth is habitable is because it rotates on its axis, which means that the side facing the sun doesn't burn to a crisp while the side facing away from the sun doesn't freeze. The problem I had with the Dyson Sphere is that if it was built as was popularised in Larry Niven's Ringworld, then wouldn't the civilisation end up burning up because there was nothing to allow it to cool down? Okay, Dyson didn't actually postulate that we would live on the sphere, but rather that it would simply be a way of collecting energy. However, the other interesting thing (which isn't raised in the Wikipedia article) is if the shell concept it used, then wouldn't this eventually act live a oven, causing everything inside the sphere to turn into a Sunday roast (and this is ignoring the fact that there may not actually be enough metal in the solar system to create the things)?  Well, glancing over the article, it appears that this shell was only one concept, and other concepts were considered as well, such as a net or web like structure, or a series of satellites. If that were the case then it would make a lot more sense, however where we are at this stage, and the fact that politicians are still running around screaming that coal is good for humanity, we may not get to that point for a long time now.

Creative Commons License
KIC 8462852 - An Alien Civilisation? by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.
"NGC 6866 map" by Roberto Mura - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons


  1. This whole story was fascinating for many reasons. Not the least of which was the impetus to go and watch a Star Trek TNG episode about this.

    It would be interesting to explore your idea of the oven. (Assuming a Dyson scenario, of course.) If we are seeing a 20% reduction in radiation, one would have to presume that some portion of that radiation is being converted into energy for the use of the civilization. Some further portion would be reflected back by the "sphere." A third portion would be absorbed by the collector, and then radiated out as heat. Depending on the construction and radiative ability, some might be directed back inward, while the rest would go outward.

    The physics of this do start to get interesting, as even a portion of 20% radiated back inward could significantly change the internal temperature...

  2. My understanding is that the Dyson Sphere was original postulated as a thought experiment, which suggests that Dyson never consider the feasibility of the idea when he came up with it.
    However, the sphere was only one concept. Another one was to use hundreds of thousands of little satelites orbiting the sun, which would reduce the amount of radiation being reflected back. However if this was being used then I doubt we would have been able to pick it up.
    I agree, it is fascinating,