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Huge Chinese Telescope Joins Search For Aliens Around Mystery Star

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

China will use the world’s largest radio telescope to join the hunt for intelligent alien life that could be building a huge structure around Tabby’s star, also known as KIC 8462852.

Much of the telescope’s free time will be diverted into searching the star for evidence of an advanced civilization. Chinese scientists will work with American researchers to investigate the star.

China unveiled its Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in September, after five years of construction and $180 million to complete. FAST is bigger than the U.S.’s 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, making it the world’s largest telescope. It is allegedly twice as sensitive as the Arecibo Observatory.

“The FAST telescope will be absolutely incredible for conducting extremely sensitive searches of Tabby’s star [KIC 8462852] for evidence of technologically produced radio emissions,” Dr. Andrew Siemion, director of Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the University of California, Berkeley, told the South China Morning Post. “We are very excited to work with our colleagues in China on conducting SETI observations with FAST, including of Tabby’s star. Within its frequency range, FAST is the most sensitive telescope in the world capable of conducting SETI observations of Tabby’s star, and will be able to detect the weakest signals.”

Funding for the search will come from the Chinese government.

Scientists think that the star could be home to extremely advanced aliens because the star randomly dims by as much as 22 percent of its output at irregular intervals. This is consistent with large orbiting masses, much larger than planets, blocking out some of the star’s light when they pass in front of it. The kind of naturally formed large masses that could cause KIC 8462852’s dimming aren’t consistent with the star’s age.

The dense formations near KIC 8462852 appear to be similar to “Dyson Spheres,” hypothetical, energy-harvesting “megastuctures” theoretical aliens could hypothetically build by rearranging the solar system. Scientists have pondered the existence of Dyson Spheres since the 1960s, thinking they could be a potential solution to energy problems faced by an extremely old civilization. SETI scientists have long argued humans could detect distant alien civilizations by looking for technological artifacts like Dyson Spheres orbiting other stars.

Scientists found the first possible evidence of this extraterrestrial civilization around KIC 8462852 last October, when astronomers with Yale University and other top schools published a study that used NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

So far, astronomers haven’t found a good single naturalistic explanation for the star’s exceedingly unusual dimming, which explains its extremely unusual behavior. Astronomers have examined 500 other stars in the vicinity of KIC 8462852, and seen nothing else like it.

“We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn’t real. We just weren’t able to,” Ben Montet, a Caltech astronomer who co-authored research on the star, told Gizmodo. “None of the considered phenomena can alone explain the observations.”

The best naturalistic explanation favored by astronomers, involves a huge mass of comets erratically orbiting the star and creating enough dust to dim the light, but a January analysis of the star’s history renders that hypothesis implausible, since the unprecedented dimming has continued for over a century. In order to dim for such a long time period, the star would need to have millions of times more dust and comets orbiting it than is  the case.

Astronomers estimate that the dimming would require roughly 648,000 giant comets of 200 kilometers in diameter, all aligned to pass in front of the star. The chances of such a formation render it essentially impossible, and there is currently no remotely plausible scientific explanation for what is going on with KIC 8462852.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Breakthrough Listen project of SETI are turning the program’s $100 million budget into investigating the star’s unique behavior.

However, just because the star’s behavior is unusual doesn’t mean it is the result of aliens. Astronomers have previously frequently misjudge abnormal stellar occurrences and, usually, the abnormalities are simply a new natural phenomenon.

A graduate student in astronomy, found an usual pulsing radio signal so predictable it seemed to be a sign of intelligent life in 1967. The astronomers even nicknamed the signal LGM-1, for “little green men,” and believed they had detected a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, but it turned out to be the first pulsar.

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