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Bizarre star leaves LSU astronomers asking: What's out there?

Source: LSU Source: LSU
BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) -

Deep space is still a vast mystery, and despite the challenges of combing through hundreds of thousands of stars, scientists found a way to make that process easier using tons of data and a website called PlanetHunters.org.

“The idea behind Planet Hunters or citizen science in general is that the human eye or your brain has an amazing ability for pattern recognition, and sometimes this can be better than computers,” said Tabetha Boyajian, an astronomer with LSU.

It's almost like crowd sourcing for space research. You can log on to Planethunters.org, take a quick tutorial, and just like that you’re classifying stars and potential planets. In this case, it's data from NASA's Kepler mission.

A few years ago citizen scientists combing through more than 150,000 stars beyond our solar system searching for planets found something strange.

“They came to the science team and said this object is very weird. What is it? We’re completely stumped,” Boyajian said.

Boyajian has spent that past few years focusing on one star in the sky. You can find it in the Cygnus constellation above the Milky Way. It's called KIC 8462852 or Tabby's star, named after Boyajian.

“In this case [it was] a NASA mission that was looking for exoplanet - that’s a planet that’s orbiting around another star - and the orbit aligns just right so every time it passes in front of the star it blocks out light, so you can see this in the data,” Boyajian said.

Usually a planet blocks out a small amount of light, but in this case, it was a huge dip in light intensity - something researchers have never seen before.

“They saw this data that you see right here on the wall and said it kind of looks like a transit, a planet going in front of a star, but it also had these weird features to it. So it was super big and very long and also oddly shaped,” Boyajian said.

Boyajian's team came up with a list of what it could be, from space dust blocking the light, maybe a planet or rock in circumstellar transit, to sunspots or flares. They even wondered if the data were flawed. But nothing really sticks. 

“It’s a remarkable object, we caught it at the perfect time. The duty cycle here is only a few percent where it’s actually acting up to have a mission to just sit and stare at the piece of the sky and turn up something like this,” Boyajian said.

Boyajian's best guess for what's blocking the light is a potential storm of comets that's kicked into the star, but there are even some holes in that theory. So her team, including students at LSU, spend their days often buried in data trying to figure out what's out there. In fact, this spring they watched the star's light dip in real time.

“Monitoring this star in May, we saw it start to trend downward and that case we are able to trigger observation worldwide, using various different wave lengths, sensitivity that sort of thing, so we can really study this material that’s passing in front of it very great detail,” Boyajian said.

That dip just fuels the fire to crack the interstellar secret.

“This leads you to say: What is going on here? Is this object very common in the universe? We don’t know of anything like it so far and how to explain it, so it changes how we look at the universe and how things work,” Boyajian said.

Now her team is keeping their telescopes trained on the sky in pursuit of what's out there, what's blocking the light, a constant fight to understand the universe, and the mysteries buried deep in space.

You can learn more about Boyajian's research by visiting her website Where's The Flux.

Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved. 

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