In bad news for alien enthusiasts, initial observations of the mysterious 'alien megastructure' star KIC 8462852 have so far turned up no signs of extraterrestrial life.
The star, which we'll call KIC for short, made headlines last month when researchers noticed that up to 20 percent of its light was being blocked periodically by a structure that astrophysicists deducted was too big and too irregular to be a planet.
So what the hell was it then? The potential answers ranged from a mass of orbiting space junk, or an oddly shaped star, all the way to an alien-made, solar-energy-harvesting Dyson swarm and, as you can imagine, the latter resulted in a whole lot of public interest.
It also caused scientists from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute to promptly point an array of 42 radio telescopes at the mysterious star, in order to look and listen for any signs of alien life.
Well, now the results from the first two weeks of observations are in, and it's not looking promising for all of us who were holding out hope that we might finally be on the verge of discovering life in the Universe outside our lonely little planet.
"Observations will continue, but so far no evidence of deliberately produced radio signals has been found in the direction of KIC 8462852," SETI concludes :(
In order to investigate the possibility of life existing around KIC, SETI scientists used the Allen Telescope Array in California to detect two types of radio signals. First, they were looking for narrow-band signals, in the order of 1 Hz, which are the kind they predict an alien civilisation would use as a 'hailing signal' to announce their presence to other societies.
They also expanded their options and looked for broadband signals, which could be caused by beamed propulsion within the star system, as SETI explains:
"If astroengineering projects are really underway in the vicinity of KIC 8462852, one might reasonably expect the presence of spacecraft to service this activity. If these craft are propelled by intense microwave beams, some of that energy might manifest itself as broadband radio leakage."
Disappointingly, analysis of the data collected over the past two weeks shows no sign of either type of signal between the frequencies of 1 and 10 GHz.
That rules out large omnidirectional transmitters that use roughly 100 times humanity's total terrestrial energy use in the case of the narrow-band waves, and 100 million times in the case of the broadband waves.
Those might sound like crazy high limits, but SETI reminds us that KIC is very far away (more than 1,400 light-years) and if a civilisation capable of building a Dyson swarm does indeed live there, they would have access to energy at a level approaching 1027 watts.
If they had omnidirectional transmitters that used only a tiny amount of this energy, we'd be able to pick them up with the current search.
And so, once again, we're left empty-handed.
"The history of astronomy tells us that every time we thought we had found a phenomenon due to the activities of extraterrestrials, we were wrong," said SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. "But although it’s quite likely that this star’s strange behavior is due to nature, not aliens, it’s only prudent to check such things out."
So where does that leave us with KIC 8462852? Well, it's still a pretty exciting mystery to solve, because there's also the possibilty that we could be on the verge of discovering an astronomical phenomena we've never encountered before, and that in itself would be a huge deal.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson said on The Late Show (as reported by Maddie Stone over at Gizmodo): "Just because you don’t understand what you’re looking at does not mean it’s aliens."
So don't be too disappointed, there are still plenty of mysteries to solve in the Universe. And there's always the very real possibility that life outside our planet exists, but just looks and acts in a totally different way than we've ever considered. Either way, we're remaining hopeful that the truth is out there.