The KIC 8462852 Test
Tyler Kokjohn, PhD
A star designated KIC 8462852 recently attracted intense interest from astronomers because its light output undergoes periodic decreases (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-shostak/are-there-signals-coming_b_8485234.html). Light fluctuations like these have revealed planets in orbit around distant stars, but this case is especially interesting because the changes seem too large to be due to even the biggest planets. If one of the possible explanations for its dramatic light output changes is correct it would mean that solid scientific evidence for intelligent aliens had just been discovered. Is the light from KIC 8462852 being blocked by orbiting megastructures built by intelligent aliens or a vast Dyson swarm of energy harvesting devices? Perhaps alien engineers rigged a gargantuan parasol looping around the star to produce a cosmic beacon signaling the presence of this civilization to all who fall fortuitously along the proper line of sight (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-shostak/are-there-signals-coming_b_8485234.html). The prospect we had glimpsed an alien civilization stimulated a great deal of discussion and some quick scientific work.
The inference the oddly deep dimming of star KIC 8462852 is due to orbiting artificial structures would be strengthened enormously by direct observations of specific correlated electromagnetic radiation emissions produced by the putative aliens. Recognizing their capacity to make a critical contribution toward answering the question, SETI Institute investigators formulated directly testable hypotheses and immediately used the Allen Telescope Array to collect objective evidence to support or refute them.
No organization is more interested in uncovering hard evidence for an intelligent alien civilization than the SETI Institute. It certainly did not require much time for them to recognize the implications of a new astronomical discovery and leap immediately into action. However, the quick action was no leap of faith and SETI scientists quickly reported they were unable to obtain any confirmatory evidence the strange light fluctuations from KIC 8462852 were due to the activities of alien engineers. The SETI Institute is heavily dependent on public donations, but these scientists did not attempt to manufacture a funding opportunity. No games, no publicity ploys and no ticket sales for an exclusive evidence unveiling in some arena, the data were collected and the results conveyed in short order directly to the public. The contrast between how the SETI Institute patiently conducts business and the way some UFO/alien abduction investigators operate is stark.
The idea that intelligent life is widespread in the Universe is well accepted in the scientific community. However, SETI scientists have not allowed enthusiasm over the prospects to get ahead of the actual data. Some of this may be due to long, hard experience. Seth Shostak begins his book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter, with an account of a false alarm event and its implications. The issue of authentication has vexed scientists since the first SETI effort, Project OZMA conducted by Frank Drake, detected a candidate signal only to realize later it was due to classified U.S. military activities (http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/early-seti-project-ozma-arecibo-message). However, the WOW! Signal received in 1977 by the Ohio State University Big Ear radio telescope has neither been repeated nor explained away (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wow!_signal). Perhaps it was a one-of-a-kind circumstance not related to aliens and maybe it really was the big one. A free podcast produced by Paul Carr (Wow! Signal Podcast, www.wowsignalpodast.com/) discusses this enigmatic signal with someone involved with the project (http://www.wowsignalpodcast.com/2014/11/season-2-episode-7-actually-wow.html). In 1974 Frank Drake deliberately beamed a 3 minute long message from The Arecibo radio telescope toward the M13 star cluster in the constellation Hercules (http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/early-seti-project-ozma-arecibo-message). Should any aliens receive this authentic message, it will also be a brief, one-off event analogous to the WOW! Signal. Perhaps the lucky recipients will remain forever suspicious of its legitimacy because it will never be repeated. Confirming unusual emissions from space are genuine evidence of alien civilizations will be challenging and the WOW! Signal will remain an intriguing curiosity unless more signs are recognized. However, thinking about our own politically controversial and sporadic efforts at cosmic outreach, perhaps with the WOW! Signal we accidentally discovered two things about our Universe; we are not alone and in at least one important way some of our alien counterparts are exactly like us.
As is the case with any scientific study, the SETI Institute effort to assess KIC 8462852 is subject to criticism and Dr. Shostak discusses several issues in his essay (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-shostak/are-there-signals-coming_b_8485234.html). The Allen Telescope Array is sensitive, but all instruments have detection limits. Perhaps assumptions about the nature of technology employed by the hypothetical aliens to communicate and power their activities were too optimistic or mistaken. Maybe the aliens are not interested in signaling outsiders and/or have no indication that aiming a beam in our direction could be fruitful. Maybe the orbiting starlight-occulting objects really are the remnants of a long extinct and now electromagnetic emissions-silent civilization. KIC 8462852 is so distant the light reaching us today shows the star as it was around 1,400 years ago. If the ancient Romans had only possessed an Allen Telescope Array, perhaps they would have been able to contact a still viable extraterrestrial civilization with a greeting of SPQR.* Things certainly change and we humans might be just too late to this party. But it is possible we have arrived a little too early – for us. It is possible the KIC 8462852 engineers have been signaling patiently in our direction for millennia, but we have yet to grasp either their methods or messages.
The idea that intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations exist is scientifically plausible and searches for them using a variety of approaches continue. Some groups have taken the initiative to direct deliberate attention-attracting outward bound messages to star systems. Still in its infancy, active SETI transmissions have already been produced by governments, scientists, entrepreneurs and commercial interests. Albert A. Harrison speculates on the future of active SETI efforts in an essay “Speaking for Earth. Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time,” (p. 173-188 In, Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication, Douglas A. Vakoch [ed.] 2014, http://www.nasa.gov/ebooks). Will we reach a point in which technological barriers are low enough that just about anyone could broadcast a message to the aliens out there somewhere? Would that be wonderful or worrisome? SETI anthropologists pondering such future possibilities may wish to study the contemporary UFO community to see how a wide variety of motivations and approaches combined with few controls or rules plays out in actual practice. The Invisible College of Jacques Vallee remains concealed for good reason.
The evidence for intelligent alien civilizations is sketchy. At the moment many possibilities remain wide open, many approaches are valid and new technological capabilities will provide more avenues for investigators. More evidence like that of star KIC 8462852 will be forthcoming. A true test of patience and systematic resolve, how you go about connecting the dots is important and can be telling.
*Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and People of Rome). Unless you are familiar with Latin, studied Roman history, visited Rome or have access to Google, an anagram that would probably have been clear to citizens of ancient Rome may be puzzling. It can be tricky to communicate across long expanses of time and cultures even on our little planet.