WASHINGTON, October 16, 2015 – It is a faint point of light in the night sky too small to observe properly with an earthbound telescope. So, Yale postdoctoral researcher Tabetha Boyajian used the Kepler Space Telescope to scrutinize object KIC 8463852 in the constellation Cygnus – for nearly half a decade.
The Kepler peers into the vastness of space in search of stars with orbiting planets. It detects them by analyzing a star’s dip in brightness, which indicates the existence of something passing between the star and the observing telescope – a planet.
The light measurement tells astronomers a lot more about these orbiting objects, like its shape and mass. Beyond a certain mass, the process of hydrostatic equilibrium kicks in, making planets round.
The object orbiting KIC 8463852 is irregular in shape. According to a paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, a “similar [light reading] variation was not seen for the 150,000 dwarf stars monitored by Kepler.”
That is a singular distinction of astronomical proportions.
Astronomer Jason Wright, Penn State University, says we may have stumbled upon an unimaginably large extraterrestrial solar-energy collector.
“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build,” Wright told the Atlantic magazine.
I remember a time when scientists hesitated blurting out such hypotheticals, fearing peer and public ridicule or an abrupt end to government funding.
If intelligent beings are indeed building orbital “megastructures” near a distant star, they are a good 1,500 light years from Earth.
And at 4.5 billion years old, our solar system is a relative newcomer floating in an outer arm of our whirling, pinwheel Milky Way galaxy. There are far older stars out there that may harbor ancient life.
Dr. Frank Drake of the SETI Institute came up with a famous equation (N = R*fpneflfifcL), which estimates the amount of advanced civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy may number 100,000,000.
Closer to home, orbital satellites recently discovered water cascading down mountain slopes on Mars, leading some to believe that it’s only a matter of time before a future NASA rover scoops up organisms happily living in that briny soup.
In 1999, NASA announced it was devising a mission (the Mars Sample Return Mission) to send an unmanned probe to the red planet to collect soil samples for return to Earth.
But the nation’s space agency felt the mission required the development of protocols for handling and storing such material safely until it was determined to be harmless.
And so, NASA created the Office of Planetary Protection
“to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth.”
NASA’s Planetary Protection Director John Rummel told me,
“It’s very much the case that there is no known life on Mars. We will treat them [Martian samples] as we would treat the most dangerous Earth organisms. We’re going to be conservative about it.”
Biologist Gilbert Levin, however, was horrified by the idea.
“Microorganisms thrive in the sand dunes of Death Valley,” Dr. Levin told me, “and there would be just about that much moisture present on Mars.”
It was his firm belief that microbes flourished in the Martian soil. You see, Levin invented the life-detecting bio-experiments on the Viking landers that touched down on Martian soil in 1976.
He told me the spacecraft’s mini biological laboratories did in fact detect life. But NASA dismissed the findings, chalking them up to “exotic chemistry.”
“You’ve only got one Earth,” said Levin. “You just don’t take that risk if you’re rational.”
While renowned physicist Stephen Hawking worries that a visit from advanced alien explorers “could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” the greater danger may be that we ourselves introduce more threatening microbial aliens to Earth.
You might call it a reverse “War of the Worlds.”
In his classic 1897 science fiction story, H.G. Wells’ protagonist stumbles upon a row of dead Martians “slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared… slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this Earth.”
Can the same be said of Man – and what he may someday “put upon this Earth”?