Aliens? Why UC Scientists Aren’t Giving Up On Strange Star

For the past year many of the world's most advanced telescopes have been pointed at Tabby's Star in hopes of finding extraterrestrial life.

"It's been looked at with Hubble, it's been looked at with Keck, it's been looked at in the infrared and radio and high energy, and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) experiments," says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. "Nothing has been found."

But a team of scientists aren't giving up. Siemion is headed to Green Bank Observatory in rural West Virginia, along with Jason Wright, a UC Berkeley visiting astronomer, and Tabetha Boyajian, the assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University for whom the star is named. There they will aim yet another powerful instrument at the star for eight hours tonight.

"The Green Bank Telescope is the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, and it's the largest, most sensitive telescope that's capable of looking at Tabby's Star given its position in the sky," says Siemion. "The implications of detecting an advanced technology on another world is -- in my opinion -- the most amazing discovery that could be made in all of human inquiry."

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Intriguing, Aliens or Not

Although the team says detecting alien life is a long shot, they can't resist the urge to study the star's unique behavior.

Usually when a planet passes in front of a star it blocks only 1 or 2 percent of a star's light. Tabby's Star dims irregularly for days at a time,  by as much as 22 percent. Some speculate that a Dyson structure, a massive orbiting array of solar collectors, could be blocking the light. The physicist Freeman Dyson once proposed that an alien civilization would naturally erect such a structure to power itself.

What Are the Chances?

"I don't think it's very likely – a one-in-a-billion chance or something like that – but nevertheless, we're going to check it out," says Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at Berkeley SETI. "But I think that ET, if it's ever discovered, it might be something like that. It'll be some bizarre thing that somebody finds by accident -- that nobody expected -- and then we look more carefully and we say, 'Hey, that's a civilization.'"

The researchers will observe Tabby for a total of three nights over the next two months. The goal is to collect one petabyte of data through hundreds of millions of radio channels. The team plans to release the observations to the public after they analyze the data for patterns in the radio emissions.

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Video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally, UC Berkeley.

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