Reporter's Notebook

Maybe It's a Dyson Sphere
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A variety of theories from our readers about the nature of the mysterious star named KIC 8462852. Is its energy being harnessed by an alien civilization?

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Many readers have openly questioned why the behavior of the light from the star KIC 8462852 is so unusual, and they centered on the sci-fi theory of a Dyson Sphere of alien superstructures encircling the star in order to harness its energy. But if anything, a Dyson Swarm—a loose collection of a structures rather than a solid sphere—is far more likely, given the immense amount of material needed to encapsulate a star from an immense distance. But gravity is an even bigger challenge. Popular Mechanics spoke with Stuart Armstrong, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute who has studied megastructure concepts:

The Sphere would not gravitationally bind to its star in a stable fashion. This is perhaps counterintuitive; you might think that a perfect sphere around a star would be stable. But if any part of the sphere were nudged closer to the star—say, by a meteor strike—then that part would be pulled preferentially toward the star, creating instability.

That’s too bad. If it could be stabilized, a Dyson Sphere built at 93 million miles from the sun, the same distance as the Earth, would contain about 600 million times the surface area of our planet in its interior. However, comparatively little of the surface would be habitable on account of a lack of gravity. By spinning the whole sphere, you create gravity in the form of centrifugal force along an equatorial band. But this rotation would wrack the megastructure with yet more destructive stress.

So any sphere would look much closer to this illustration by Rick Sternbach, published in Future magazine in 1979:

A photo posted by Martin Kennedy (@scifi_art) on

Could a Dyson Swarm be built around our own sun? George Dvorsky explores the tantalizing question:

A bunch of your emails have come in regarding this popular note based on Ross’s fascinating look at the mysterious star named KIC 8462852. A reader writes:

Just a sci-fi-ish suggestion: If the object(s) around that star are indeed a Dyson “swarm,” or perhaps a partially complete (and thus perhaps still-under-construction) Dyson sphere, then such an object or objects that could block out a star’s light more completely might be one possible explanation, or at least partial explanation, for the so-called “dark matter” of theoretical physics. Such an hypothesis would neatly explain why dark matter has the gravitational effects observed on our galaxy and others yet there does not appear to be any to be found in our own solar system. Needless to say it would also have implications for the incidence and location of advanced alien civilisations.

Another reader’s theory:

Perhaps it is not so much a power-collection structure but a means to signal other intelligent life. Did anyone look for patterns in the blocking of light? Variations in luminosity? Binary in light vs no light?  If it is another civilization, then they would be aware of its visibility to other life with a certain tech level.

A less exciting theory: “It also could be nothing but pollution, like humans are polluting the Earth’s orbit with debris right now.” Another reader:

I had another theory I was surprised no other sci-fi nerd seemed to touch upon.

That’s what many readers are suggesting in response to Ross’s captivating piece on a mysterious star that many scientists suspect might harbor an alien civilization in its orbit. The basics:

A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that completely encompasses a star and hence captures most or all of its power output. It was first described by Olaf Stapledon in his science fiction novel, Star Maker. The concept was later popularly adopted by Freeman Dyson. Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization, and proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the detection of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life. Different types of Dyson spheres correlate with information on the Kardashev scale.

Many readers cast their skeptical eyes, expertise, and general nerdom: