Two weeks of intense staring at this mysterious star—but no sign of aliens (…yet)

Is someone listening?
Is someone listening?
Image: Flickr/Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill under CC-BY
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Add another project to the graveyard of failed experiments. One of the most promising candidates in the search for alien life appears to be barren.

The Institute for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) had big hopes for the star called KIC 8462852. The Kepler telescope saw that the star had a mysterious flicker. Some serious scientists, after throwing out most hypotheses, thought that an alien megastructure might explain the lights.

The star, given its size and age, should have emitted a lot more light than the telescope could detect. If there was a planet in front of it, it would have reduced the intensity of the star by 1%, but Kepler’s observations showed a 22% decrease. One explanation was that it may be the result of an alien megastructure—called a Dyson sphere—that an intelligent race built to capture more of its star’s energy.

SETI knows that such data oddities are not unusual. Previously, some anomalies have been explained by human errors and others by bird droppings. But for SETI, even failure is a step forward. Every so often, anomalous data can reveal a never-before-seen phenomenon. In the 1960s, for instance, weird observations assumed to be signs of alien life turned out to be emanating from what we today call a pulsar—a rotating star which emits beams of radiation.

On Oct. 16, SETI turned its array of 42 antennae towards KIC 8462852. The antennae were tuned to search for specific bands of radiation that are considered the most promising signals of life. But after two weeks of intense staring, SETI admitted that it found nothing in a study published on Nov. 6.

Despite the failure, SETI is undeterred. After all, extraordinary discoveries require extraordinary grit.