Friday, October 16, 2015


Grab a ride on the solar carousel via Dyson structure

Imagine for a moment that you are a member of an advanced civilization in desperate need of energy. Now there’s a great big, nearly inexhaustible source of clean energy a mere 93 million miles away on dear old Sol. All you have to do is harvest it. 

We’re not talking building a few solar panels here and there. That’s way too inefficient, and, besides, you need that land for agriculture and living space. You need to go directly to the source and take as much as you can get. You need a Dyson structure.

In fact, a science fiction writer named Olaf Stapledon imagined just this scenario in the novel The Starmaker in 1937. The future problem-solvers of his novel built a gigantic shell around the sun to capture the entire output of the star to power Earth’s needs. Riffing off that idea, which wasn’t technologically possible, physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson proposed in 1960 that other structures might be able to do the same thing if placed in orbit around the sun. A “ring” of solar collectors, for example, or a loose “bubble”, rather than a solid shell, might be feasible once a civilization reached a certain level of technological skill. Indeed, Dyson felt these structures, termed “swarms” by others, would be a necessity for a society that had grown to a certain level of advancement, given the constant need for energy.

Dyson wrote a paper on the subject titled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation,” in which he argues these swarms would be detectable because of the shift they would create in the spectrum of the suns they orbited. The SETI project uses Dyson’s theory as one of the criteria its scientists look for when scanning the skies for extraterrestrial intelligence. And guess what?

They may just have found what they were looking for.

After more than four years of observation by the Kepler telescope, a mysterious star between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra has shown those tell-tale shifts into the infra-red on a regular basis. What the lay person would call a “dip” in the light from the star cannot be accounted for by the regular transit of a planet, because it’s not round in shape. (Yes, the scientists can tell this.) The cause of the dips seems to be an irregular collection of objects orbiting in a tight formation. Explanations for the mass—that it might consist of bits of a broken-up planet or refugees from the asteroid belt or comets drawn close to the sun by another transiting sun—have all been discounted or admitted to be wildly coincidental.

But Tabetha Boyajian, a Yale postdoctoral candidate who oversees the Kepler Planet Hunters program that discovered the star, is considering “other scenarios.” Like the one proposed by Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University. He believes the star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” which may be designed to capture energy from that sun.
“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider,” Wright said, “but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Boyajian, Wright and Andrew Siemion, Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, are proposing to point a massive radio telescope at the unusual star, in hopes of picking up any hint of the frequencies associated with technological activity. If they detect a large amount of the right kind of radio waves coming from the star, they’ll pursue the matter with the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico to determine whether those radio waves are just elaborate static or really do carry evidence of alien soap operas, 911 calls and text messaging. 

I’m thinking this is very cool news. But I’m also thinking we should get cracking on our own Dyson swarm. You know, cobble together a bunch of solar panels from old satellites and boost them into orbit around the sun. Add to them year after year. Pretty soon we might have something. Let’s put Mark Watney on it; bet he could figure it out.


Website, blog, Facebook, and now Twitter, too! I really am becoming a woman of the New Century! You can find me now on Twitter @DonnaSFrelick.

Cheers, Donna

Information in this post was drawn from “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy,” by Ross Anderson, THE ATLANTIC, October 13, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. This is really fascinating news, Donna! For decades, our chance of finding other civilizations in the cosmos has been akin to finding a needle in a haystack the size of the western hemisphere. Now that we've developed the skill set to analyze the light from distant stars, we'll be able to pinpoint the systems that look most promising for supporting an alien culture with advanced technology. It's goosebump worthy stuff!

    And yes, definitely put Mark Watney on the project! :)


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