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Astronomers have found a second star that dims in an inexplicable manner, like Tabby’s Star.
Known as VVV-WIT-07, the star appears to be much older and redder than our sun, although the amount of interstellar dust between our solar system and the star’s home closer to the galactic center makes exact classification and distance measurements very difficult. What is certain is that in the summer of 2012, the object’s brightness faded slightly for 11 days, then plummeted over the following 48 days, suggesting that something blocked more than three quarters of the star’s light streaming toward Earth. But what could that “something” be?
According to Eric Mamajek, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester unaffiliated with the VVV survey, such a profound degree of dimming suggests that a staggeringly large object or group of objects is blocking the light. “It’s got to be over a million kilometers wide, and very dense to be able to block that much starlight,” he says. Mamajek should know: He led the team that discovered J1407, another strange star periodically eclipsed by a planet-sized object thought to boast a massive ring system some 200 times broader than that of Saturn. In this latest case, he says, the strange signals from VVV-WIT-07 could arise from clumps or clouds of material passing between Earth and the star, though he cautioned that the data were preliminary and more observations are required.
Tabetha Boyajian agrees. Boyajian, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, was the lead author for the 2015 paper announcing the strange dimming of KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby’s Star, an unusual object first spotted by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. VVV-WIT-07 would have to harbor “a very peculiar kind of dust cloud to make these kinds of dips,” Boyajian says. Boyajian’s study helped spark a surge of public interest in Tabby’s Star because the star’s unusual dimming could be seen as evidence of an alien civilization building an artificial structure that soaked up the star’s light. More conventional explanations include a swarm of comets or fragments from a shattered planet, both of which would create significant clouds of dust and debris that could also occlude the star’s light. But, so far, no simple single explanation fits the complexities of the dimming seen around the star; researchers remain stymied in their attempts to understand the true nature of the strange dimming of Tabby’s Star.
As is usually the case in these cases, the explanation will not be aliens. That it could be, however, is what makes it so intriguing.