Alien complex or comet cluster

Miriam Atkinson delves into the realms of science fiction as she attempts to determine if alien civilisation really does exist or if a peculiar pile of rock has confused scientists

2nd November 2015

For centuries humanity has looked up at the stars and wondered if there is anyone else out there. Well now we may finally be close to learning whether we are alone in the universe.

Astronomers have discovered a large group of objects or structures orbiting the KIC 8462852 star just outside of our own Milky Way. The Kepler Space Telescope identified an unusual light pattern coming from the star, which alerted astronomers, including Jason Wright of Penn State University, to take a closer look. In the coming months Wright hopes to learn exactly what this area of tightly grouped matter is made of in order to determine whether it is something natural, such as a group of comets, or something alien. In addition, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has used the Allen Telescope Array to analyse any possible radio signals coming from the area. Their results should be published in the coming weeks.

“Of all the planets so far discovered only a very small number of them could be capable of supporting life.”

It is doubtful the human race will ever agree on the existence of alien life. People can fall anywhere on the scale from utter sceptic to absolute believer. Yet a recent YouGov poll discovered that more than half of us accept the possibility of alien creatures, with America and Britain among the highest countries harbouring these believers. The poll revealed that age is a factor in this debate. In Britain 59% of young people aged between 18 and 24 believe in aliens while only 45% of people aged over 60 share their conviction. Perhaps this is due to modern day popular culture which has seen a rise in the science fiction genre through the mediums of literature, film and television. This may have in turn led to a greater acceptance or interest in science fact.

“It is doubtful the human race will ever agree on the existence of alien life.”

Given just how vast our ever expanding universe is, is it really that impossible to imagine there could be another form of intelligent life out there? Of all the planets so far discovered only a very small number of them could be capable of supporting life. Within a solar system a planet must be close enough to its host star to receive its warmth (the sun in our case) but not too close to burn the surface of the planet. The planet must also follow an orbit that does not take it too far away from the star otherwise it will freeze. This small area of space is called the Habitable Zone or sometimes the Goldilocks Zone – an astronomer’s twist on the classic fable whereby the temperature is not too hot or too cold to support life as we know it. So if the thought of alien life seems extraordinary, remember it was only by miraculous chance that human life managed to evolve.

But if aliens did exist what would they look like? From a scientist’s perspective microscopic bacteria found on another world would be classed as ‘life’, however, the beings that created the megastructure around KIC 8462852 would have to be infinitely more complex creatures like us. To build such a structure they would require strong muscles in their arms as well as hands complete with fingers and those ever useful opposable thumbs - unless they used tentacles or telepathy to move objects. To possess the knowledge of space travel they would need large brains and would be highly intelligent. To survive space travel they would require strong lungs and hearts together with a strong respiratory and circulatory system.

In reality, such speculation remains to be entirely theoretical until the origin of this structure can be confirmed. Are there really little green men running around out there? We could be very close to finding out...

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