Scientists may finally have an explanation for the mysteriously dimming star that has captivated us for years

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Artist’s impression of Tabby’s star (KIC 8462852) - Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech via Wikimedia Commons  - HDR tune by  Universal-Sci

Artist’s impression of Tabby’s star (KIC 8462852) - Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech via Wikimedia Commons - HDR tune by Universal-Sci

KIC 8462852, more commonly known as Tabby's star, has dazzled scientists and the general public alike for years now. At first sight, it is an ordinary star at approximately 1500 light-years from Earth. But in mid-October 2015, the star suddenly enjoyed a lot of press attention because astronomers had discovered a unusual objects around the star using the Kepler space telescope.

During that time, many theories arose as to what these mysterious objects where. Some astronomers, for example, believed that the star was swarmed by exocomets. Some of the theories went a bit further and proposed alien made structures, like a Dyson sphere (a hypothetical megastructure that can be used to capture a large portion of the light of its host star for its energy). Sadly no conclusive explanation was found. 

An illustration of an arrangement of multiple Dyson rings in a more complex form of the Dyson swarm - Image Credit:  Vedexent via Wikimedia Commons

An illustration of an arrangement of multiple Dyson rings in a more complex form of the Dyson swarm - Image Credit: Vedexent via Wikimedia Commons

Recently though, scientists from the University of Columbia believe they've found a substantial answer. They published their paper in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

The researchers proposed that Tabby's star had an orbiting planet in the distant past. Eventually, that exoplanet was destroyed by its host star in a collision, nothing extraordinary thus far. Interestingly though, the exoplanet probably had an exomoon. 

KIC 8462852 in infrared (left) and ultraviolet (right) - Image Credits:  Infrared: IPAC/NASA - Ultraviolet: STScI (NASA) - via Wikimedia Commons

KIC 8462852 in infrared (left) and ultraviolet (right) - Image Credits: Infrared: IPAC/NASA - Ultraviolet: STScI (NASA) - via Wikimedia Commons

Usually, exomoons would be swallowed whole or be slingshotted out of the system by the host star as its host planet collides with its star. However, on rare occasions, the star steals the exomoon and puts it into a distinct orbit around itself. This is probably the case with KIC 8462852. In its new orbit directly around its star, the exomoon would have been bombarded with vast amounts of radiation, blowing away its outer layers, creating vast dust clouds. If those clouds pass between Tabby's star and Earth, it would explain the unusual variations in brightness that we observed. After millions of years, the exomoon will eventually completely vanish. 

Scientists now want to study other star systems with unusual brightness dips. They hope to find similar stars like Tabby's star with an exomoon that has not yet been completely evaporated. The researchers think, based on their predictions from this study, that exomoons are a common feature in other star systems.

Sources and further reading: Orphaned Exomoons: Tidal Detachment and Evaporation Following an Exoplanet-Star Collision - Columbia University press release


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