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Fourteen hundred light-years separate Earth from the strangest star in the sky. The light from this star flickers, like a giant neon sign drifting through the constellation Cygnus. After the star's dim intervals, which last for days or weeks, it brightens again.

No other star acted this way. No observation could explain its behavior.

That is, until now. A 200-strong team of scientists says it has arrived at an answer, thanks to an astronomy project crowdfunded on Kickstarter. The culprits are not aliens, as some people have speculated, but probably a cloud of dust, each particle less than a micrometer across. Combined, these dust particles coalesced into one of the biggest question marks in recent astronomical memory.

In 2015, astrophysicist Tabetha Boyajian published a paper describing the starlight dips. The brightness diminished by 20 percent, according to observations from the Kepler space telescope. Planets block starlight when they pass across stars, like a hand waved in front of a flashlight. But even an object as huge as Jupiter can reduce a star's brightness by just 1 percent.

Other natural explanations were raised and dismissed. "It truly is something extraordinary," said Tyler Ellis, a PhD student, who, along with Boyajian, works at Louisiana State University and studies this star and others.

The star, a yellow-white dwarf labeled KIC 8462852, was unusual enough to get a nickname, "Tabby's star," after Boyajian. Tabby's Star earned its own Reddit forum.

And the star was so curious that Jason Wright, an astronomer Pennsylvania State University, floated the most exotic explanation available to astronomers: Aliens. Perhaps extraterrestrials had constructed a titanic array of solar panels around the star, a hypothetical concept proposed years ago by physicist Freeman Dyson. The construction project would, in theory, diminish a star's brightness in a way consistent with observations of Tabby's Star.

But when astronomers with the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence aimed their radio telescopes at Tabby's Star, they heard no signs of life.

Meanwhile, Boyajian and her colleagues wanted to go beyond the Kelper data and watch the star dip in real time. They predicted the star would dim on a 750-day cycle. But, to be sure, they needed to continuously collect images each night, in a variety of ranges across the light spectrum.

Kepler is not equipped for sustained observation. "The only facility that specializes in this is a private facility called the Las Cumbres Observatory," Boyajian said. A public Kickstarter campaign collected the necessary $100,000 to purchase telescope time, and the hunt began through the lens of the California telescope.

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Category: Science