Right now KIC 8462852 is really hot, and not just because it is a F3 V/IV type star: the light curve, as measured by Kepler, has irregular dips that looks like something (or rather, several somethings) are obscuring the star. The shapes of the dips are odd. The system is too old and IR-clean to have a remaining protoplanetary disk, dust clumps would coalesce, the aftermath of a giant planet impact is very unlikely (and hard to fit with the aperiodicity); maybe there is a storm of comets due to a recent stellar encounter, but comets are not very good at obscuring stars. So a lot of people on the net are quietly or not so quietly thinking that just maybe this is a Dyson sphere under construction.
I doubt it.
My basic argument is this: if a civilization builds a Dyson sphere it is unlikely to remain small for a long period of time. Just as planetary collisions are so rare that we should not expect to see any in the Kepler field, the time it takes to make a Dyson sphere is also very short: seeing it during construction is very unlikely.
In my and Stuart Armstrong’s paper “Eternity in Six Hours” we calculated that disassembling Mercury to make a partial Dyson shell could be done in 31 years. We did not try to push things here: our aim was to show that using a small fraction of the resources in the solar system it is possible to harness enough energy to launch a massive space colonization effort (literally reaching every reachable galaxy, eventually each solar system). Using energy from already built solar captors more material is mined and launched, producing an exponential feedback loop. This was originally discussed by Robert Bradbury. The time to disassemble terrestrial planets is not much longer than for Mercury, while the gas giants would take a few centuries.
If we imagine the history of a F5 star 1,000 years is not much. Given the estimated mass of KIC 8462852 as 1.46 solar masses, it will have a main sequence lifespan of 4.1 billion years. The chance of seeing it while being enshrouded is one in 4.3 million. This is the same problem as the giant impact theory.
An abandoned Dyson shell would likely start clumping together; this might at first sound like a promising – if depressing – explanation of the observation. But the timescale is likely faster than planetary formation timescales of – years – the pieces are in nearly identical orbits – so the probability problem remains.
But it is indeed more likely to see the decay of the shell than the construction by several orders of magnitude. Just like normal ruins hang around far longer than the time it took to build the original building.
Maybe the aliens are not pushing things? Obviously one can build a Dyson shell very slowly – in a sense we are doing it (and disassembling Earth to a tiny extent!) by launching satellites one by one. So if an alien civilization wanted to grow at a leisurely rate or just needed a bit of Dyson shell they could of course do it.
However, if you need something like Watt (a 100,000 km collector at 1 AU around the star) your demands are not modest. Freeman Dyson originally proposed the concept based on the observation that human energy needs were growing exponentially, and this was the logical endpoint. Even at 1% growth rate a civilization quickly – in a few millennia – need most of the star’s energy.
In order to get a reasonably high probability of seeing an incomplete shell we need to assume growth rates that are exceedingly small (on the order of less than a millionth per year). While it is not impossible, given how the trend seems to be towards more intense energy use in many systems and that entities with higher growth rates will tend to dominate a population, it seems rather unlikely. Of course, one can argue that we currently can more easily detect the rare laid-back civilizations than the ones that aggressively enshrouded their stars, but Dyson spheres do look pretty rare.
Dyson shells are not the only megastructures that could cause intriguing transits.
C. R. McInnes has a suite of fun papers looking at various kinds of light-related megastructures. One can sort asteroid material using light pressure, engineer climate, adjust planetary orbits, and of course travel using solar sails. Most of these are smallish compared to stars (and in many cases dust clouds), but they show some of the utility of obscuring objects.
Duncan Forgan has a paper on detecting stellar engines (Shkadov thrusters) using light curves; unfortunately the calculated curves do not fit KIC8462852 as far as I can tell.
Luc Arnold analysed the light curves produced by various shapes of artificial objects. He suggested that one could make a weirdly shaped mask for signalling one’s presence using transits. In principle one could make nearly any shape, but for signalling something unusual yet simple enough to be artificial would make most sense: I doubt the KIC transits fit this.
More research is needed (duh)
In the end, we need more data. I suspect we will find that it is yet another odd natural phenomenon or coincidence. But it makes sense to watch, just in case.
Were we to learn that there is (or was) a technological civilization acting on a grand scale it would be immensely reassuring: we would know intelligent life could survive for at least some sizeable time. This is the opposite side of the Great Filter argument for why we should hope not to see any extraterrestrial life: life without intelligence is evidence for intelligence either being rare or transient, but somewhat non-transient intelligence in our backyard (just 1,500 light-years away!) is evidence that it is neither rare nor transient. Which is good news, unless we fancy ourselves as unique and burdened by being stewards of the entire reachable universe.
But I think we will instead learn that the ordinary processes of astrophysics can produce weird transit curves, perhaps due to weird objects (remember when we thought hot jupiters were exotic?) The universe is full of strange things, which makes me happy I live in it.
[An edited version of this post can be found at The Conversation: What are the odds of an alien megastructure blocking light from a distant star? ]