Are there alien races so advanced that they can turn their whole solar system into a construction project?
If you follow astronomy news, you’ll know that there’s been a lot of interest since last year in a star designated KIC 8462852, also informally called Tabby’s Star after astronomer Tabetha Boyajian at Yale, who’s devoted a huge amount of her time to studying the star after it was first flagged by some amateur stargazers. According to data from the Kepler Space telescope, Tabby’s Star has been getting dimmer over recent decades, but not consistently, and not because of any known kind of star behaviour. It undergoes strange “dimming events” that might see it lose 2% - 3% of its brightness over a period of time. New research shows that it’s not just occasional flickering, but an overall steady decline in the star’s output as well. Scientists have no solid explanation—some have suggested a cloud of dust or other material getting in the way, or possible a swarm of comets, but none of these ideas explains every aspect of the data.
So could it be that Tabby’s Star is home to an alien race so powerful it has built mammoth structures in space that are blocking or even capturing their star’s light?
No one will commit to that scenario, but Boyajian herself plans to study the star for a full year, and others will explore a wide range of evidence to learn whether the star’s fluctuation is natural or…alien-made.
Mega-sized artificial space structures aren’t a new idea to scientists, and especially not to science fiction writers. Writer Olaf Stapledon mentioned the possibility of a race harnessing the entire energy of its home star back in 1937 but it got widespread attention when physicist Freeman Dyson published a paper about the concept in 1960. It came to be known as a Dyson sphere or Dyson shell—although Dyson himself proposed a large number of vast power stations orbiting a star, the popularized form of the concept became a shell of material, drawn from asteroids and moons, that would totally enclose a sun, capturing every bit of its output, and consequently making it disappear from view to any other solar system (except for heat and other energy radiating from the back of the shell, presumably). Writer Larry Niven invented the Ringworld, a wide band of solid stuff kept in orbit around its star, its inner surface providing a huge amount of living space and lots of energy for the race that engineered it. Dan Alderson came up with the idea for the Alderson disk, like a giant vinyl LP record perhaps extending to the orbit of Mars or even Jupiter with the sun as the spindle in the center. The disk could also be given an up-and-down motion that would make the sun ‘bob’ above and below it, making both surfaces habitable. Later, Larry Niven and fellow writer Gregory Benford invented the Bowl of Heaven—basically half of a Dyson sphere for living space and energy capture, but with a hole in it through which to blast a stream of highly-energized particles forced out of the sun, like a rocket engine, making the whole star system into one stellar-scale movable spaceship. Now that’s what I call big concept.
Could Tabby’s Star be dimming because beings there are constructing a ringworld, or a Dyson sphere, or some other mammoth object we can’t even imagine?
Maybe, but there have been lots of other times when hopeful scientists have suggested alien intervention as the explanation for phenomena that turned out to be natural, from the too-regular-to-be-natural radio emissions of pulsars, all the way back to the canals on Mars, ‘discovered’ by Percival Lowell (not to mention an embarrassing finding by a radio observatory in Australia that turned out to be caused by the scientists’ microwave oven as they reheated their coffee!)
Still, if we ever do discover other intelligent life “out there”, this is probably how it will be done. So I shouldn’t discourage the wishful thinkers too much. And what effect will it have on us, if such a thing is ever proven? Will it send us into a panic, or inspire us to perform unimaginable feats ourselves?
You know which one I’m hoping for.