I’m sure by now you’ve heard of Tabby’s Star. If not, it’s one of the most mysterious stars in the universe that has baffled astronomers who first observed it in data that was collected by the Kepler Mission.
This amazing star is 50% bigger than our sun, and 1,000 degrees hotter. It may be approximately 1,280 light years from our planet, but it has piqued the interest of astronomers ever since the Planet Hunters project pointed out its odd behavior to Tabetha Boyajian’s science team in 2015. Ever since Boyajian has been conducting research and writing papers about the star.
On Wednesday, January 3rd, Boyajian’s latest research paper was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and was brimming with some excellent data.
You see, what makes Tabby’s Star so remarkable is that it dims and then brightens in unexplainable and unpredictable ways. Because it is an F-type Star it’s expected to maintain a constant level of brightness. However, it dims for up to a week at a time, and it’s baffling that it has grown fainter over the past century.
In time periods that ranged from 5 – 80 days, the star’s brightness level would dip an amazing 22%. This amount is much greater than any planet in our solar system could cause by passing in front of our sun.
Jason Wright, who is an astronomer at Penn State University that has studied Tabby’s Star, said “It’s been called the most mysterious star in the galaxy, we call it the ‘WTF’ star” (he went on to add that it’s an abbreviation that stands for “where’s the flux?“).
It’s been theorized that for this star to behave in that way, something roughly 1000 times the size of Earth had to be blocking it. Fellow Astronomers have had many suggestions. While an alien megastructure might be the most exciting one; space dust, a destroyed planet, an oblong star which appeared to dim as it rotated and a mass of planets have also been speculated.
All the data that was collected by the Kepler mission was not enough to help the astronomers pinpoint the exact cause. Tabby’s Star and its mysterious nature led to a popular Kickstarter project where 1762 people donated a total of $107,421. This enabled the astronomers to purchase observation time from the Las Cumbres Observatory and gave them plenty of time to observe the star from March 2106 to December 2017.
“All of our supporters were interested in seeing data be collected so they could help us figure out what it was. We made no promises. We’re not going to search for signs of ET. The project was to see what happened next,” Boyajian said.
During the six-month time frame, the observations for Wright’s “Where’s the Flux?” project were able to measure Tabby’s Star in a variety of different wavelengths and they observed several dips. This data was able to prove that whatever is blocking Tabby’s light, does not block it completely but allows more red light to get through than it does blue light.
“Whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure,” Tabetha Boyajian said in a press release. “Dust is most likely the reason why the star’s light appears to dim and brighten. The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure.”
I know people might not be as excited about dust as they are the possibility of an alien megastructure, but it’s still quite a discovery. If anyone happens to feel slightly let down by the dust Boyajian said “This is definitely something new and exciting. Even if it is dust, what kind of dust does this?”
Besides, there are even more questions that need to be answered now. There are theories about the origin of the dust; maybe it was caused by comets or by Tabby’s Star expelling moons or consuming a planet. It’s going to take time to find the answers because there could be several factors that contributed to this phenomenon.
“It’s overwhelming, it sort of feels like a Christmas where everyone gets you books, and at the end of the day you have this enormous stack – but you have no idea where to start or how long it’s going to take to get through it all,” Wright said.
“Kepler only looked at one part of the sky, and this was one of 100,000 stars. But there are hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy,” he said. “So, there could be billions of these out there, too.”
Next year, the James Webb Space Telescope is expected to launch, and it will be able to give a detailed look in infrared. Hopefully, Boyajian’s team will be granted observation time for the research because it could answer many more questions.
“Is this the only one of these stars out there?” Boyajian asked. “It’s unique to anything we’ve ever observed, but space is still very much unexplored.”
When you think about all the undiscovered areas of space, just waiting to be explored it can be a bit overwhelming. After all, we’ve only gazed upon a small fraction of the universe and often we end up with more questions than answers. If you’re like me, your mind is probably brimming with excitement about this discovery. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments.
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About the Author: Bethany Vincent is a writer from La Grange Kentucky who has loved playing with words since she first learned to speak. She lives with her teenage son and adopted dog daughter in a cute, yellow house with a picket fence. During college at the University of Louisville, she could be found at the writing center most of the time and her main areas of focus were literature, creative writing, and visual arts. Bethany has contributed articles and created content for many websites and blogs during her writing career. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, juggle-dancing, yoga, photography, cooking and singing along with her favorite songs while in the car driving. In the future, she plans to finish writing her first book and hopes to travel to all the beautiful places that she’s read about.