on the objects orbiting KIC 8462852 and the things they might be (part 4)

KIC 8462852 (or Tabby’s Star), the “most mysterious star in the Galaxy” is just becoming visible in the dawn sky after spending October-early May behind the Sun, and astronomical observations are starting up again as it becomes available to telescopes. With them comes a new opportunity to get involved in the study of this fascinating object.

It’s been a slow few months for research on the strange star whose lightcurve has no obvious explanations. The discovery paper (and many of the other early follow-up papers) have finally appeared in refereed journals, making the first stages of the star’s exploration officially official. Because it’s been sitting behind the Sun (as seen from Earth, of course) for so many months, studies had to rely on existing datasets – whatever happened to be on hand before the star was known to be interesting, which isn’t much.

Still, there are two points of interest:

First, Tabetha Boyajian, the lead author on the discovery paper, gave a TED talk about the star in February. She summarizes the history of how the star was found, what they think it might be, and how they intend to find out what’s really going on.

Second, there’s a new opportunity to help fund exploration of KIC 8462852. It’s a kickstarter being run by Boyajian and the Planet Hunters team.

The Kickstarter for the Where’s The Flux star (Logo by Frank Okay)

What they hope to do is purchase time to do in-depth photometric follow-up of KIC 8462852 so they can watch for more transiting events. The problem is, Kepler, the telescope that discovered it, can’t observe it any more.

Kepler uses reaction wheels to control its pointing, and it needs at least three to work. It lost that third reaction wheel in May 2013, forcing it to end its mission to stare at its starfield in Cygnus after only three and a half years (and yes, this is the dataset where NASA just announced thousands of new planets – these things take a while to sift through). The rest of the spacecraft is fine, though, and NASA has figured out how to balance the spacecraft using light pressure from the Sun in a newly designed mission known as K2. Unfortunately, the specifics of how that light pressure works mean it can’t point at Cygnus any more.

So Boyajian and Planet Hunters need to get more data some other way. They’ve found the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope network, which is a network of small (but advanced) telescopes, with one huge bonus: Their network spans the globe, such that when the sun rises at McDonald Observatory in Texas, it’s still night on Haleakela in Hawai’i, and when the sun comes up there, it’s still night at Siding Springs in Australia, and when the rises on Australia the night’s just starting for Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and so on. They can observe 24 hours a day, weather permitting, and once the network is finished they’ll have multiple locations to accommodate bad weather at a single site, too. Las Cumbres has gifted Boyagian with telescope time that’ll let her observe the star through the end of the summer, but there’s no guarantee that KIC 8462852 will do anything interesting in that time. Beyond the summer, observations won’t be free.  Someone has to pay for maintenance and upkeep and on-site assistance, even if it IS fascinating.

Usually, they’re paid for by a national organization like NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), or the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). But Las Cumbres is private, so they get paid by the researchers. And telescope time is not cheap: it’s hundreds of dollars per night. Think of it like renting a small venue for a wedding.

Usually, THIS is where astronomers write funding grant proposals to NASA, the NSF, or (if they can) their university’s foundation. But money is limited in all of those places, the waiting times are long (the yearly deadline is usually in November, i.e. not long after this star was discovered), and quite frankly there just isn’t enough money in the U.S. Federal Government’s science budget to fund everything interesting anyway.

Hence: Kickstarter. Now the general public, who discovered the star in the first place in the Planet Hunters program, has an opportunity to fund this research. As I write this, they’re nearly a third of the way there. If you care about finding out what’s going on with Tabby’s Star – and the prospect of having discovered an alien civilization, or at least some freaky new stellar astrophysics, is undeniably a draw.

This project isn’t out to find aliens, though – this is still early days, even if this is my fourth-ish article about this star. We still need to know more about the star before we can begin to say what it even is. There’s a long, long way to go and many questions to be answered before aliens are the only remaining explanation. But with this Kickstarter, they’ll begin to learn what they need to know.

Disclaimer: I know Tabby from grad school, though she did not ask me to write about this…

Other posts on Tabby’s Star: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.14Part 4


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