The Island

The “Alien Megastructure” star is back in the news, though the word news probably deserves some quotation marks of its own. From the article:

The more scientists learn about “Tabby’s Star,” the more mysterious the bizarre object gets.

Newly analyzed observations by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope show that the star KIC 8462852 — whose occasional, dramatic dips in brightness still have astronomers scratching their heads — has also dimmed overall during the last few years.

“The steady brightness change in KIC 8462852 is pretty astounding,” study lead author Ben Montet, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement.

Look. There’s the 97.5% of my brain which understands what’s going to happen here. Through decades of observation of the Megastructure star, theories will be built and refined and ripped down and born anew. Models will be constructed, peer-reviewed, melted down and sold for scrap, and rebuilt from the ashes. Eventually, someone is going to figure out what is going on in that star system.

Whatever that something is, it’s bound to be boring by mine own standards. Fascinating, maybe, from the position of an active researcher – potentially revolutionary for those obsessed with the science of solar system formation and/or orbital mechanics – but for woo-loving laymen like me, it’s going to be disappointing. Maybe it’s a weirdly dense cloud of planetary debris or comet fragments as the article suggests. Maybe it’s basically equipment failure, as the article also suggests.

I mean, y’know. Because it’s not aliens.

I know it’s not aliens, or at least, that the chance of it actually being aliens is vanishingly small.

I know that.

But.

There’s also the other, little, tiny, itty-bitty part of my brain that reads Peter Watts religiously. And that part of my brain remembers a certain little-read short story from a while back, about the crew of a lonely starship way out in the deep, deep dark, and about a star they found out there.

A star that blinked.

“There,” Dix whispers: real space reclaims the edges of the tank, dark, clear, pristine. 428 nestles at the heart of a dim spherical shroud. You find those sometimes, discarded cast-offs from companion stars whose convulsions spew gas and rads across light years. But 428 is no nova remnant. It’s a red dwarf, placid, middle-aged. Unremarkable. Except for the fact that it sits dead center of a tenuous gas bubble 1.4 AUs across. And for the fact that this bubble does not attenuate or diffuse or fade gradually into that good night. No, unless there is something seriously wrong with the display, this small, spherical nebula extends about 350 lightsecs from its primary and then just stops, its boundary far more knife-edged than nature has any right to be.

For the first time in millennia, I miss my cortical pipe. It takes forever to saccade search terms onto the keyboard in my head, to get the answers I already know.

Numbers come back. “Chimp. I want false-color peaks at 335, 500 and 800 nanometers.”

The shroud around 428 lights up like a dragonfly’s wing, like an iridescent soap bubble.

“It’s beautiful,” whispers my awestruck son.

“It’s photosynthetic,” I tell him.


Photo stolen unabashedly from Rifters.com

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