Geeking Science: Dyson or Dust?

Image courtesy of Jolee G at

Kepler gave us a lot of data. Like a lot, a lot of data. For four years, the lens stared into a small portion of our sky, monitoring about 200,000 stars waiting to see if any of them blinked.

A blink indicating something transiting in front of the star. Like a planet.

It would be mostly luck if anything was found – the planet’s orbit would need to be four years or less (preferably less so a pattern could be found from the number of transits verifying a planet instead of a glitch) and large enough to make a difference  in the luminescence being monitored, and on orbit plane to transit between the star and Earth. But 200,000 was a large enough sample to give random luck a lot of dice rolls.

Computers are still crunching through the information, and grad students monitoring them are still making discoveries a decade later. Some of the data is available to citizen-scientists at the Mikulski archives if you would like to play along. (See Bibliography.)

In 2015, a published study indicated a group of students looking for blinks found something.

Specifically, Tabetha Boyajian discovered an anomaly with star KIC 8462852.

Scientists LOVE anomalies.

Makes them have to create new theories.

The star didn’t just blink – meaning a Jupiter-size planet passed in front dropping the luminescence by less that 1% for a couple hours. No, this puppy practically closed it eye. Depending on the day in the four-year monitoring, the eye was wide open or varied between 0.5% to 22% – yes, twenty-two percent – dip in luminescence. That is a big, Big, BIG transit. And not just a quick hour rush across the surface of the star, the dips sometimes lasted for weeks.

So, not constant in amount, not on any orderly schedule they could find (like, say, a planetary orbit), and way too big. On top of all that, it was jagged change curve – not a smooth, like a single planet-sized object create. 

Maybe something or multiple somethings between us and it? After all, we are talking 1,468 light years. 

Oh, and, even better, the overall luminescence was slowly dipping too – maybe as much as 3% during the observation time-frame.

So another scientist went looking, because that is what scientists do – they look at other people’s tests like it is middle school all over again. Only they call it “peer review”. Bradley Schrieffer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, went deep diving doing his peer review thing, searching through photographic plates dating back to 1890. Seems that KIC 8462852 … now, Boyajian’s Star (because if you discover anomalies, things get named after you – a much better way to get in the science books than have a disease named after you) … not only does the dip thing, but it has been steadily losing luminescence during that entire time to the tune of 15% over the century.

Stars don’t just dim. Not over a hundred years. And not with random fluxes in between.

No wonder the students nicknamed the star the WTF? star (What the Flux?).

Then scientists did what scientists do when faced with data not matching known phenomenon. They created theories and ran thought and model tests. (In the writing biz, we would call this creating fiction – coming up with ideas and then seeing if we got something with enough legs to be a novel.)

Big thing between us and the star? For 100 years and doing periodic increases and decreases? And why aren’t other stars in the observed area also obscured?

Comet didn’t work, too small. A fleet of comets coming from who knows where – maybe, except one hundred years? Move that down on the list.

Dust? For 100 years? A star’s solar winds would have blown that away in a couple years. WTF? star was old and stable enough to have cleared out any protoplanet dust clouds millions of years ago. Day-to-day cleanup, from say asteroids colliding, requires only a quick blow and all the dust is gone.

How about the sun eating a planet? Maybe? If the planet was eaten a hundred years ago, making the star brighter and it is still coming down from that and it ejected a dust cloud that for some reason (and here where this theory died) has a variable orbit and can block upto 22% of the light of its star on a good day. Yeah, not so much.

How about a Dyson sphere in-process of being built?

Everyone stared at the sci-fi geek. I mean, all scientists are sci-fi geeks, but some are more geeky than others. The word Alien is a last option choice. Because, underneath it all, it is what everyone who looks up to the stars hopes for. That we aren’t alone. That, maybe, there is someone to talk to someday. But because we want it so, so bad, we must eliminate every.other.option first. First rule of Dyson spheres in the astronomical community is don’t talk about Dyson spheres.

But they put “alien megastructure” on the list, because the slow buildup of a super-size structure fit the data available the best.

Next, armed with theories to test, the scientists gathered data through … a Kickstarter to buy telescope time. (Boyajian 2016) They needed to find a dip and then get a WHOLE bunch of different types of filters recording the event as soon as one occurred. The up-side is the WTF? star had the long transit so they had time to get several telescopes looking at the same place if money was paid in advance.

The kickstarter funded and the data came in.

And .. dust … maybe?

Whatever is in the way can be seen through in some wavelengths but not others, which indicates lots of little grains instead of full opaque sheets like a Dyson sphere would have. Well, it was a long-shot anyway. Any species in space isn’t likely to go into space just to stick close to home and create a shell to hide in.

But the dust isn’t the normal interstellar size. And we still have the slow overall decrease of the luminescence over a century as well as the random fluctuations of varying duration and sequence. So not normal dust. Another anomaly.

The scientists must absolutely love Boyajain’s Star. A mystery for going on three years.

Next up, I’m betting they want more data. Another star maybe? Kepler had a very narrow view. Only 200,000 stars (only two hundred thousand is something that gets tagged as “only” in astronomy).

We got a lot of sky to investigate. We will figure this mystery out.

Dust to dust.

And while sweeping up the dust, maybe we might find a Dyson sphere. Who knows? After, that is a lot of stars for humanity to be alone.

In the meantime, what can science fiction writers speculate about what the dust could be?



Bochanski, John. “New Observations of the ‘Most Mysterious Star in the Galaxy'”. Sky and Telescope. 2018 January 3. – Last viewed 12/2/2019.

Boyajian, Tabetha. “The most mysterious star in the Galaxy.” Kickstarter. 2016. – Last viewed 12/2/2019.

“Kepler”. Mikulski Archives Space Telescopes. – Last viewed 12/2/2019.

“Kepler Mission Information”. NASA Exoplanet Archive. – Last viewed 12/2/2019.

Siegel, Ethan. “Forget Alien Megastructures, New Observations Explain Tabby’s Star with Dust Alone.” Forbes. – Last viewed 12/2/2019.

Woo, Marcus. “The most mysterious star in the galaxy”. BBC. 2017 May 15. – Last viewed 12/2/2019 (seems to be missing as of 10/31/2022).