A team of astronomers want you to help solve “one of the biggest mysteries of all time.” WTF (Where’s the Flux?) is a star 1,480 light-years away that occasionally has a significant amount of its light blocked by some unknown object. Is it a giant comet storm? Or perhaps an alien megastructure orbiting the star? No one knows, but these astronomers plan to find out with the help of a little crowdfunding.
Late last year, astronomers announced the discovery of KIC 8462852 — aka the WTF Star or “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy.” The WTF star stood out from the 150,000 other observed stars in its galactic neighborhood. At irregular and infrequent intervals, NASA’s Kepler space telescope recorded significant and unusual dimming of the star’s brightness, which an online citizen science group, Planet Hunters, eventually recognized and reported.
Kepler measures starlight over time in order to help astronomers detect distant planets. As planets pass in between Earth and stars, they periodically block a small fraction of astar’s light, and can reveal an orbital pattern. By reviewing Kepler’s data, astronomers can identify planets and estimate their properties, such as distance and size.
But the WTF star’s light would periodically dim by as much as 20 percent, which suggest an object far too large to be a conventional planet. When the Planet Hunters saw this drastic and peculiar change in flux, they knew they’d discovered something unique but they couldn’t explain what it was. The citizen scientists took their findings to professional astronomers who shared in their excitement, surprise, and bemusement.
To study and uncover the mystery of the WTF star, astronomers need to purchase telescope time, which is competitive and expensive. Yale researcher Tabetha Boyajian and her team are hoping to raise $100,000 in funding to put towards anothe year’s worth of telescope hours. Their current contract runs out by the end of this summer, so time is of the essence.