Orbital View: Stay Safe Mexico!

Astronomers have spotted a strange mess of objects whirling around a distant star. Scientists who search for extraterrestrial civilizations are scrambling to get a closer look.

In the Northern hemisphere’s sky, hovering above the Milky Way, there are two constellations—Cygnus the swan, her wings outstretched in full flight, and Lyra, the harp that accompanied poetry in ancient Greece, from which we take our word “lyric.”

Between these constellations sits an unusual star, invisible to the naked eye, but visible to the Kepler Space Telescope, which stared at it for more than four years, beginning in 2009.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” says Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

Kepler was looking for tiny dips in the light emitted by this star. Indeed, it was looking for these dips in more than 150,000 stars, simultaneously, because these dips are often shadows cast by transiting planets. Especially when they repeat, periodically, as you’d expect if they were caused by orbiting objects.