A distant star, known as KIC 8462852, is flickering in the night sky. To the uninitiated, that might seem like what any healthy star should be doing—twinkling and whatnot—but astronomers have declared that this particular cycle of flickering and dimming cannot be explained by any known natural phenomenon. Absent a compelling explanation, the internet (with the blessing of some heavy hitting astronomers) has concluded that aliens built a megastructure to drain the star.
Since then we have seen a host of follow-up studies, none of which have found evidence of alien activity. But now, a team of researchers has released a pre-publication analysis of their 1,600-day observation of the rogue star, and they’ve discovered something even stranger than aliens. KIC 8462852 isn’t just flickering—it’s taking the equivalent of a stellar dive into oblivion. “The part that really surprised me was just how rapid and non-linear it was,” coauthor Ben Montet of Caltech told Gizmodo. “We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn’t real.”
“We just weren’t able to.”
This isn’t the first time that KIC 8462852 has baffled astronomers. One paper last year discovered that the rogue star had dimmed by about 19 percent over the past century, but those results have since been discredited. This new study suggests an even more radical dimming—representing a 3 percent decline in just four years—which is about twice as fast as prior estimates. For the first 1,000 days of the study, the star dimmed only slightly (by about 0.34 percent per year). But over the next 200 days, the star’s dimming picked up pace, and dropped off by more than 2 percent. When the dust settled, the four year period had left the star 3 percent dimmer than it started.
Fortunately, scientists are already planning a follow-up study, which will involve pointing the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network at KIC 8462852 for a longer stretch of time. One of the goals of the new research is to get to the bottom of this mystery. “We don’t have any really good models for this sort of behavior,” Jason Wright of Penn State told Gizmodo. “That’s exciting!”