Penn State Professor Leads Astronomy Research Team In Search For Aliens

Yes you read that right: aliens.

Dr. Jason Wright, a researcher and professor in the astronomy department here at Penn State has been working with a research team to interpret data from the Kepler Telescope, which collects vast amounts of varied data about space including planets, stars, galaxies, solar systems, and other intergalactic structures such as asteroids and star formations. Dr. Wright teamed up with Yale researchers who are members of an open research group known as PlanetHunters. Essentially this group is open to anyone (even you) who wants to sift through data and classify planets and other planetary systems by way of the transit method.

To put it simply, the transit method is when a drop in brightness occurs on a star, and the drop is mathematically measured, analyzed, and interpreted in order to determine what an object is. Dr. Wright and his research team utilized the transit method to interpret data from the Keplar Telescope to search for extraterrestrial life as a part of the SETI initiative, which is being researched by Dr.Wright’s partner research team at Yale University. About a year and half into the extremely detailed research, “something” unknown came across the screens, something that was never seen before in the entire history of modern astronomical research.

We sat down with Kimberly Cartier, a fourth year graduate student in the astronomy department who has been playing an integral role in the fascinating research, to discuss the groundbreaking work she and Dr. Wright are trailblazing. Cartier explained the importance of the human eyes and mind through the entire process.

“Humans are the best at detecting patterns,” Cartier said. “There is nothing quite like the human mind for finding patterns.”

She explained the magnitude and the vastness of the data being collected by the Kepler telescope, which is simply astounding. The data, which encapsulates multiple interstellar structures millions of light years away, needs to be interpreted, analyzed, and monitored for obscurities, according to Cartier.

“We know what planets, planet formations, binary stars, and other common structures in space look like,” Cartier assured.

What they found in the Kepler data, however, were obscure anomalies. The team at Yale discovered a new, unusual structure, “KIC 8462852.” The team came to Penn State to work with Dr. Wright and his team to attempt to debunk the anomaly, but it couldn’t be debunked.

Cartier reiterated the weight of the discovery. Nothing like this had ever been seen before.

“We were able to rule out some things off the bat. It’s not a binary star. It’s not a planet or planet formation, or any other structure we’ve seen before.”

According to Dr. Wright’s research, multiple complicated possibilities could be ruled out, including that the structure was some rare type of old star. This structure was behaving like nothing the research teams had seen up to this point. Dr.Wright’s use of the transit method did, however, account for other possible explanations of these anomalies.

“I had been working on a paper about detecting transiting megastructures with Kepler,” Dr. Wright said in his research. “The idea is that if advanced alien civilizations build planet-sized megastructures — solar panels, ring worlds, telescopes, beacons, whatever — Kepler might be able to distinguish them from planets.”

This new, rare, and unexplained KIC 8462852 structure could possibly be one of these alien megastructures.


Before you gear up for a galactic battle, Cartier broke my heart, saying that it’s probably not an alien megastructure. She explained how damaging our sun is to life due to its radiation and sheer heat, and that the sun close to this unidentifiable object is way hotter, making it even more dangerous than our sun is to Earth.

Being so hot, this sun also has an even shorter life than ours, which only adds to the list of factors that wouldn’t allow life to survive nearby. At this point in the interview my alien fascination and hopes of intergalactic interaction sort of looked like this.

Cartier said that the team’s research has been extremely well received by the scientific community not only here at Penn State but on a global scale. Other research teams have put their bids in to work with the same data and study it further, and that this type of research is sparking others to search through the SETI initiative.

“New data is needed to expand our knowledge, and people are excited,” Cartier said.

Sadly, Penn State won’t be mentioned on an episode of Ancient Aliens any time soon, but it did gain notoriety in multiple media publications, as well as on a segment of SNL’s Weekend Update.

Even though KIC 8462852 probably isn’t an alien megastructure, the exploration is only beginning. The team has put in for a research proposal with the GreenBank telescope, which will only increase the variety, depth, and possibilities of the research, and will allow them to search for more interstellar anomalies. Cartier, for one, still can’t shake the idea that there’s intergalactic life.

“It’s highly unlikely we’re alone in the universe. Highly unlikely.”

Maybe there’s nothing out there, maybe there are microbial structures floating on an asteroid, or maybe there are even aliens that walk upright and shoot laser guns. No one knows for sure yet, but researchers like Dr. Wright and Kimberly Cartier are paving the way to find out.

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About the Author

Tim Reams

Tim Reams is a senior majoring in labor employment relations.

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