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Allen Telescope Array antennas
The Allen Telescope Array looks for alien radio signals. (Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute)

The SETI Institute says it hasn’t detected any alien radio signals coming from a star whose light seems to be dimming in a weird way, but it’s too early to determine what kind of phenomenon is behind the pattern.

The star, which is known as KIC 8462852 and lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, has been the focus of otherworldly buzz for the past month due to anomalous observations gathered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Kepler’s data suggested that the star goes dramatically dim on an irregular schedule, at intervals ranging from five to 80 days.

Astronomers said the best natural explanation for the effect appeared to be a swarm of comets that just happened to be passing across the star’s disk when Kepler was looking. But one research team, led by Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, speculated that the effect could be caused by an alien megastructure that was being built around the star.

For decades, scientists have talked about the theoretical possibility of building a “Dyson Sphere” around stars to capture their energy for industrial purposes, Wright said the KIC 8462852’s brightness pattern matches what might be expected if an advanced civilization were in the process of constructing a rotating Dyson Sphere around the star. Even though that scenario was highly unlikely, he and other astronomers called for further observations of the star in order to understand the phenomenon better.

The SETI Institute started collecting radio readings from the star on Oct. 15, using the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. The 42-dish radio telescope array, funded in part by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, is fine-tuned to detect transmission patterns that could be identified as being of artificial origin.

Today, the institute said its initial search turned up nothing of clear alien origin in the frequencies between 1 and 10 GHz, either as narrow-band or broad-band signals.

“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,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, said in today’s statement.  “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.”

Despite the non-detection, KIC 8462852 remains a high-value target for further observation.

“You can expect more people to look at it,” Shostak told GeekWire. “Everybody who has access to a big telescope, either a radio telescope or an optical telescope, is going to try to find out anything they can learn about this system.”

For example, by making observations at different wavelengths, astronomers can figure out whether the starlight is being blocked by solid objects or shining through diffuse obstacles such as clouds of dust or streams of cosmic pebbles. Even if the phenomenon turns out not to be caused by alien megastructures, the results will be fascinating.

For further details about the SETI Institute’s study, check out “Radio SETI Observations of the Anomalous Star KIC 8462852,” a research paper posted today to the ArXiv pre-print server. Authors of the paper include SETI Institute scientist Gerry Harp as well as Jon Richards, Seth Shostak, Jill Tarter, Doug Vakoch and Chris Munson.

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