Discovery of massive celestial megastructure sparks 'alien' theories

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Strange Star Has Astronomers Wondering If They've Found Alien 'Megastructures'

The award for strangest star in the universe just went to KIC 8462852.

And while some are saying that this star could be harboring a giant structure built by an advanced alien civilization, the scientists behind the hype are saying otherwise.

Business Insider recently spoke with two of these astronomers to find out what's really going on and if this structure really is proof of alien intelligence or a complete hoax.

For some background: A postdoctoral graduate at Yale, Tabby Boyajian, and Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, recently discovered a bizarre and mysteriously giant structure orbiting the star that's unlike anything they've ever seen.

And now they're doing what scientists do best: weighing all of the possible explanations until more data comes in that can rule out the wrong reasons in favor of the right one.

Right now, there are many options on the table, including a giant swarm of comets, left-over chunks from a broken-up planet, and last but certainly not least an alien-built megastructure. But we won't know for sure until more data is collected.

See discoveries made by the Kepler telescope:

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NASA's Kepler Space Telescope
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Discovery of massive celestial megastructure sparks 'alien' theories
NASA's Kepler spacecraft. (Photo via NASA)
This artist's concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter. (Photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)
This artist's concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to our sun. The habitable zone is a region around a star where temperatures are right for water -- an essential ingredient for life as we know it -- to pool on the surface. Scientists do not know if Kepler-452b can support life or not. What is known about the planet is that it is about 60 percent larger than Earth, placing it in a class of planets dubbed "super-Earths." While its mass and composition are not yet determined, previous research suggests that planets the size of Kepler-452b have a better than even chance of being rocky. Kepler-452b orbits its star every 385 days. The planet's star is about 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It is a G2-type star like our sun, with nearly the same temperature and mass. This star is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun. As stars age, they grow in size and give out more energy, warming up their planets over time. (Photo via NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)
Highlighted are new planet candidates from the seventh Kepler planet candidate catalog that are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in the stars' habitable zone—the range of distances from a star where liquid water could exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. The dark green area represents an optimistic estimate for the habitable zone, while the light green area represents a more conservative estimate for the habitable zone. The candidates are plotted as a function of the star's surface temperate on the vertical axis and by the amount of energy the planet candidate receives by its host star. Open yellow circles show new planet candidates in the seventh catalog. Open blue circles show candidates from previous catalogs. Filled-in circles represent candidates that have been confirmed as planets due to follow-up observations. Note that the new candidates tend to be around stars more similar to the sun, representing progress in finding planets that are similar to the Earth in size and temperature that orbit sun-like stars. (Photo via NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)
The sweep of NASA Kepler mission’s search for small, habitable planets in the last six years. The first planet smaller than Earth, Kepler-20e, was discovered in December 2011 orbiting a Sun-like star slightly cooler and smaller than our sun every six days. But it is scorching hot and unable to maintain an atmosphere or a liquid water ocean. Kepler-22b was announced in the same month, as the first planet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star, but is more than twice the size of Earth and therefore unlikely to have a solid surface. Kepler-186f was discovered in April 2014 and is the first Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone of a small, cool M dwarf about half the size and mass of our sun. Kepler-452b is the first near-Earth-Size planet in the habitable zone of a star very similar to the sun. (Photo via NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)
This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and the solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury. The habitable zone of Kepler-186 is very small compared to that of Kepler-452 or the sun because it is a much smaller, cooler star. The size and extent of the habitable zone of Kepler-452 is nearly the same as that of the sun, but is slightly bigger because Kepler-452 is somewhat older, bigger and brighter. The size of the orbit of Kepler-452b is nearly the same as that of the Earth at 1.05 AU. Kepler-452b orbits its star once every 385 days. (Photo via NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt)
Spectators watch the launch of NASA's planet-hunting spacecraft, Kepler Friday, March 6, 2009, from Cocoa Beach, Fla. Kepler, named after the German 17th century astrophysicist, set off on its unprecedented mission at 10:49 p.m., thundering into a clear sky embellished by a waxing moon. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Malcolm Denemark)
IN SPACE - UNSPECIFIED: In this handout illustration made available on December 5, 2011 by NASA, the Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star is digitally illustrated. For the first time NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed a planet to orbit in a star's habitable zone; the region around a star, where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could persist. The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth, making it the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habit. Clouds could exist in this earth's atmosphere, as the artist's interpretive illustration depicts. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - UNSPECIFIED: In this handout illustration made available on December 5, 2011 by NASA, a diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-22, a star system containing the first 'habitable zone' planet discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. The habitable zone is the sweet spot around a star where temperatures are right for water to exist in its liquid form. Liquid water is essential for life on Earth. The diagram displays an artist's rendering of the planet comfortably orbiting within the habitable zone, similar to where Earth circles the sun. Kepler-22b has a yearly orbit of 289 days. The planet is the smallest known to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a sun-like star and is about 2.4 times the size of Earth. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA via Getty Images)
IN SPACE, UNSPECIFIED: In this handout digital illustration released on September 15, 2011 by NASA, the newly-discovered gaseous planet Kepler-16b orbits it's two stars. NASA's Kepler Mission discoverd the world orbiting two Stars, the larger a K dwarf and the smaller a red dwarf. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt via Getty Images)
IN SPACE, UNSPECIFIED: In this handout digital illustration released on September 15, 2011 by NASA, the newly-discovered gaseous planet Kepler-16b orbits it's two stars. NASA's Kepler Mission discoverd the world orbiting two Stars, the larger a K dwarf and the smaller a red dwarf. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle via Getty Images)
The graphic tells NASA's Kepler spacecraft's story by the numbers from the moment it began hunting for planets outside our solar system on May 12, 2009. From the trove of data collected, we have learned that planets are common, that most sun-like stars have at least one planet and that nature makes planets with unimaginable diversity. (Photo via NASA Ames/W Stenzel)
(Photo via NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)
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Is it aliens?

As Penn State astronomer Kimberly Cartier told Business Insider about the coverage: "It's gotten a bit out of hand." What's more, she said that the probability of this exciting, yet wildly confusing, observation being aliens is "very low."

She also emphasized: "Just to clarify, neither [my colleague] Jason [Wright] or myself ... are advocating that it is an alien megastructure, but we also can't completely rule it out."

Cartier works with Wright who is spearheading the search for these megastructures as a way to enhance the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project. The two collaborated on a scientific paper about how to go about finding these structures back in 2009.

Moreover, Wright recently blogged about his work with KIC 8462852.

His post does an excellent job of presenting the data in a straight-forward, non-hyped way. But as he recently told Atlantic reporter Ross Andersen, "Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build."

We asked Wright how he felt about the hype his quote has since spawned.

"I think the star is really inexplicable, but I would put the probability that [aliens] is what it is as very low."

What's really going on

Right now, the only scientific information astronomers have for star KIC 8462852 is its light curves, which is an estimate of how much light Earth receives from the star over a given period of time.

Arecibo_Observatory_Aerial_View(NASA)

These light curves reveal that something giant, about half the width of the star, is blocking the light but in bizarre bursts that are anything but periodic. If the obstruction were a planet eclipsing the star, it would block the light with a predictable pattern as the planet orbited the star.

But "the eclipses have very strange shapes in the sense that whatever is blocking it is not a circular object," Wright told Business Insider. "And there's lots of them — lots of things blocking the star. When you put all that together, there's nothing like that [anywhere else] in the sky. It's unique and very very strange."

These light curves were first collected by a post doctoral fellow at Yale, Tabby Boyajian. After Boyajian presented them at Penn State, Wright took an immediate interest and soon after contacted Andrew Siemion, who works at the Berkeley SETI Research Center. The two submitted a telescope proposal to study the star in more detail that is still pending.

What wright would like to do next is take what are called spectra of the star. Spectra are a critical tool in astronomy that allows researchers to essentially take a chemical fingerprint of an object that tells them what it's made of.

"I want to see spectra when its dim and spectra when its bright and compare the two," Wright said. "And the difference should tell us what the light is passing through and tell us whatever is blocking it, what that's made of. That will be very diagnostic."

Is Earth doomed?

In the mean time, as we wait for Wright and Siemion to collect more information, it is worth addressing the possibility that if (and that's a very big if) this structure were made by an alien civilization, is Earth doomed?

Asteroid(NASA)

To that, Cartier said absolutely not.

If the structure were artificial, it would be what Cartier and Wright describe as a Dyson sphere, which is a type of energy generating device and was first described by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in a 1960 paper in Science.

"The structure itself is not meant to support life, Cartier told Business Insider. "It's something called a Dyson sphere, which is essentially a large porous series of solar panels ... that's meant to capture some of the starlight and convert it into usable energy for a civilization that's orbiting farther out in a region that would be more habitable."

While constructing a Dyson sphere would require a tremendous amount of resources, it does not take technology that is vastly advanced to our own to build. That means, these potential alien beings have not likely invented warp drives to skip across the galaxy just yet.

"Certainly to build a structure that big requires a lot more resources and potentially more advanced technology than we currently have available to us," Cartier told Business Insider. "However that doesn't imply that they have the capabilities to travel all the way here to Earth."

Moreover, if this, in fact, were a Dyson sphere, it would be a work in progress because of its apparent shape, Cartier later told Business Insider in an email.

The star KIC 8462852 is over 1,400 light years from Earth. So, don't worry, the world won't be coming to an end due to an alien invasion any time soon.

RELATED: Check out some of the most awe-inspiring views of space

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Images of Space, Spitzer Telescope Infrared
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Discovery of massive celestial megastructure sparks 'alien' theories
Swirling dust clouds and bright newborn stars dominate the view in this image of the Lagoon nebula from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Also known as Messier 8 and NGC 6523, astronomers estimate it to be between 4000 and 6000 light years away, lying in the general direction of the center of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The star-forming region, 30 Doradus, is one of the largest located close to the Milky Way and is found in the neighboring galaxy Large Magellanic Cloud. Spitzer. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

 NGC 2207 and IC 2163, which are located about 130 million light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Canis Major.

(photo credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/STScI/JPL-Caltech ) 

The scattered remains of an exploded star named Cassiopeia A. Much of the star's original layering had been preserved. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
A star's spectacular death in the constellation Taurus was observed on Earth as the supernova of 1054 A.D. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Volunteers using the web-based Milky Way Project brought star-forming features nicknamed "yellowballs" to the attention of researchers, who later showed that they are a phase of massive star formation. The yellow balls -- which are several hundred to thousands times the size of our solar system -- are pictured here in the center of this image of the W33 star forming region taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared light has been assigned different colors; yellow occurs where green and red overlap. The yellow balls represent an intermediary stage of massive star formation that takes place before massive stars carve out cavities in the surrounding gas and dust.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Centre of the Milky Way galaxy viewed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared image of the galactic centre and dusty clouds, lit up by young massive stars. Credit NASA. Science Astronomy Space (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Within the swaddling dust of the Serpens Cloud Core, astronomers are studying one of the youngest collections of stars ever seen in our galaxy. This infrared image combines data from NASAs Spitzer Space Telescope with shorter-wavelength observations from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), letting us peer into the clouds of dust wrapped around this stellar nursery.
(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS)

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Spitzer Space Telescope false-colour image of 'South Pillar' region of tsar-forming region called the Carina Nebula. Star embryos (yellow or white) inside finger-like pillars of thick dust (pink). Hot gases are green. Credit NASA (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
the Andromeda galaxy in a composite image from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer's super-sensitive infrared eyes show Andromeda's relatively 'cool' side,. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)

The brain-like orb called PMR 1 has been nicknamed the "Exposed Cranium" nebula by Spitzer scientists. This planetary nebula, located roughly 5,000 light-years away in the Vela constellation, is host to a hot, massive dying star that is rapidly disintegrating, losing its mass. The nebula's insides, which appear mushy and red in this view, are made up primarily of ionized gas, while the outer green shell is cooler, consisting of glowing hydrogen molecules.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J.Hora)

Newborn stars peek out from beneath their natal blanket of dust in this dynamic image of the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. It is one of the closest star-forming regions to our own solar system. Located near the constellations Scorpius and Ophiuchus, the nebula is about 407 light years away from Earth. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

A new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, taken in infrared light, shows where the action is taking place in galaxy NGC 1291. The outer ring, colored red in this view, is filled with new stars that are igniting and heating up dust that glows with infrared light. The stars in the central area produce shorter-wavelength infrared light than that seen in the ring, and are colored blue. This central area is where older stars live, having long ago gobbled up the available gas supply, or fuel, for making new stars.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

SPACE, SPACE: This image released 07 October, 2004 by NASA shows Kepler's supernova remnant produced by combining data from NASA's three Great Observatories -- the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Kepler's supernova was first seen 400 years ago by sky watchers, including famous astronomer Johannes Kepler. The combined image unveils a bubble-shaped shroud of gas and dust that is 14 light-years wide and is expanding at 4 million miles per hour (2,000 kilometers per second). AFP PHOTO/NASA (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)

Millions of galaxies populate the patch of sky known as the COSMOS field, short for Cosmic Evolution Survey, a portion of which is shown here. Even the smallest dots in this image are galaxies, some up to 12 billion light-years away. The square region in the center of bright objects is where the telescope was blinded by bright light. However, even these brightest objects in the field are more than ten thousand times fainter than what you can see with the naked eye.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This composite of 30 Doradus, aka the Tarantula Nebula, contains data from Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Tarantula Nebula is one of the largest star-forming regions close to the Milky Way. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Named RCW 120, this region of hot gas and glowing dust can be found in the murky clouds encircled by the tail of the constellation Scorpius. Spitzer. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The ghostly structures highlighting the peculiar patterns of orbiting stars in the center of the galaxy NGC 1291 stand out vividly in this specially-processed image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. By making detailed observations of the galaxy in infrared light, astronomers can tease out the hidden details of the strange dynamics in this barred galaxy.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The destructive results of a mighty supernova explosion reveal themselves in a delicate blend of infrared and X-ray light, as seen in this image from NASAs Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton.

(photo credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/IAFE)

A galaxy about 23 million light-years away is the site of impressive, ongoing, fireworks. Rather than paper, powder, and fire, this galactic light show involves a giant black hole, shock waves, and vast reservoirs of gas.

(photo credit: NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/STScl/NSF)

This image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows what lies near the sword of the constellation Orion -- an active stellar nursery containing thousands of young stars and developing protostars. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The galaxy IC 342 presents its delicate pattern of dust in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
This new view of the North America nebula combines both visible and infrared light observations, taken by the Digitized Sky Survey and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, respectively, into a single vivid picture. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This image is a tiny snippet of the vast 20 gigapixel GLIMPSE360 panorama released in March 2014. Visitors were encouraged to use the web viewers on the Spitzer site to search through the data and then share and name their findings on Twitter. This region was tweeted by @kevinmgill, who tagged it "Nebula Does Not Approve."

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Roguish runaway stars can have a big impact on their surroundings as they plunge through the Milky Way galaxy. Their high-speed encounters shock the galaxy, creating arcs, as seen in this newly released image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope exposes the depths of this dusty nebula, known as Messier 78. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
This painterly portrait of a star-forming cloud, called NGC 346, is a combination of multiwavelength light from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared), the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope (visible), and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space telescope (X-ray). (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The collection of red dots seen near the center of this image show one of several very distant galaxy clusters discovered by combining ground-based optical data from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's Kitt Peak National Observatory with infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. This galaxy cluster, named ISCS J1434.7+3519, is located about 9 billion light-years from Earth.

(Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Cassiopeia A supernova's first flash of radiation makes six clumps of dust (circled in annotated version) unusually hot. The supernova remnant is the large white ball in the center. This infrared picture was taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
This image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows a wispy, vast structure in the constellation Perseus with a small bubble right in its center puffed out by the spasms of fresh-formed, heavyweight stars (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The various spiral arm segments of the Sunflower galaxy, also known as Messier 63, show up vividly in this image taken in infrared light by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Combined observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the newly completed Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile have revealed the throes of stellar birth, as never before, in the well-studied object known as HH 46/47.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ALMA)

This planetary nebula, known as NGC 650 or the Little Dumbbell, is about 2,500 light-years from Earth in the Perseus constellation. Unlike the other spherical nebulas, it has a bipolar or butterfly shape due to a "waist," or disk, of thick material, running from lower left to upper right. Fast winds blow material away from the star, above and below this dusty disk. The ghoulish green and red clouds are from glowing hydrogen molecules, with the green area being hotter than the red.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J.Hora)

What might look like a colossal jet shooting away from a galaxy turns out to be an illusion. New data from the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), combined with an infrared view from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, reveals two galaxies, one lying behind the other, that had been masquerading as one.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NRAO)

The famous Horsehead nebula seen in visible-light images (inset) looks quite different when viewed in infrared light, as seen in this newly released image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

(photo credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/STScI/JPL-Caltech ) 

The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi is having a "shocking" effect on the surrounding dust clouds in this infrared image from NASAs Spitzer Space Telescope. Stellar winds flowing out from this fast-moving star are making ripples in the dust as it approaches, creating a bow shock seen as glowing gossamer threads, which, for this star, are only seen in infrared light.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The spiral galaxy NGC 3627 is located about 30 million light years from Earth. This composite image includes X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue), infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope (red), and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope (yellow). The inset shows the central region, which contains a bright X-ray source that is likely powered by material falling onto a supermassive black hole.

(photo credit: NASA/CXC/Ohio State Univ)

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