Was it a catastrophic collision in the star's asteroid belt? A giant impact that disrupted a nearby planet? A dusty cloud of rock and debris? A family of comets breaking apart? Or was it alien megastructures built to harvest the star's energy?
Just what caused the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852?
Massimo Marengo, an Iowa State University associate professor of physics and astronomy, wondered when he saw all the buzz about the mysterious star found by citizen scientists on the Planet Hunters website.
Those citizen scientists were highlighting measurements of star brightness recorded by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Tiny dips in a star's brightness can indicate a planet is passing in front of the star. That's how Kepler astronomers -- and citizen scientists using the internet to help analyze the light curves of stars -- are looking for planets.
But this star had deep dips in brightness -- up to 22 percent. The star's brightness also changed irregularly, sometimes for days and even months at a time. A search of the 150,000-plus stars in Kepler's database found nothing like this.
So Marengo and two other astronomers decided to take a close look at the star using data taken with the Infrared Array Camera of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. They report their findings in a paper recently published online by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
"The scenario in which the dimming in the KIC 8462852 light curve were caused by the destruction of a family of comets remains the preferred explanation …," wrote the three -- Marengo; Alan Hulsebus, an Iowa State doctoral student; and Sarah Willis, a former Iowa State graduate student now with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory.Neither the best, nor the only explanation, however.