August is turning into a truly weird month with one thing and another… and one of those weirdos is the new results on Tabby’s Star, also known as KIC8462852. For those of you with photographic memories, you will know that this star hit the headlines last year. This was discovered by Tabetha Boyajian, a citizen scientist, to have strange dips in its light output, by up to 20%. Sensible explanations like a planet orbiting in front of the star were ruled out because the timings in the dips were not right. In fact, they had difficulty explaining the whys and wherefores. In desperation, an astronomer resorted to suggesting aliens had built a megastructure round the star. To be fair to him, he did consider this as an explanation of last resort. Hence the headlines. In the end Tabby and her team settled for an explanation of a comet swarm in the middle of dissolution.
Of course the scientists and astronomers went on to do some more investigation. Only things got weirder. Some people checked historical archives for old glass plates of the star. They found that over a hundred years, the star had faded by a whopping 0.16 magnitude. Only, as is usual in scientific circles, someone pointed out another possible cause – the long term dimming could be due to systematic errors. Problem solved then. Phew!
A new study looked at four years worth of data from the Kepler telescope to find if Tabby’s star had any trends. That was when they realised the star was fading even faster than anyone had thought – which kind of backed up the results from examining the century’s worth of glass plates.
End result was that it kicked the breaking up of a comet swarm theory to dust.
In fact, the experts are stuck for any theory at the moment. And obviously the astronomers are going to keep an eye on it – in fact a kickstarter has funded time on a telescope to get more observations.
I’m not expert, but I can think of two possibilities. The first is that Tabby’s Star is in some kind of death throes mechanism that does weird things to stars. The second one is to do with magnetohydrodynamics, so I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that similar mechanisms have been seen in planetary atmospheres.
Now for weirdness number 2. A Trans-Neptune Object is not behaving itself. Details can be found here. The object not only swings around the Sun backwards compared to other planets, asteroids, comets etc, but is in an orbit tilted at 110 degrees to the Solar plane. They have christened it Niku – Chinese for rebellious (pity they didn’t call it Rogue One – ahem… said she tiptoeing away from this statement). So the logical conclusion is that Niku must have been knocked off its original course, whatever that was. The astronomers did check whether this could be the mysterious Planet IX they are searching for, but it turns out to be coming too close to Neptune’s orbit to be the case. But then 70,000 years ago, a star did pass through our system – Scholz’s star. See here for details. Could this be the culprit that knocked Niku off course? Or could it be an interloper from outside our Solar System? If it’s the latter, I can see NASA pulling together a programme to send a research satellite there.
All this weirdness should be an inspiration to science fiction writers (unless they are in the middle of a novel that they now need to tailor to take account of the new facts).
So why aren’t we seeing more stories?
The answer lies somewhere in the publishing industry, but where, I don’t know for certain. I personally don’t think there is much room for hard science fiction in the magazines that are being published. And yet, as we’ve seen here, there is a need for science fiction to come up with out of the box ideas that might help the scientists explain what is going on.