Is That a Dyson Sphere?!

© Fernando Caracena, 2017

Has the Kepler Space Telescope stumbled upon a Dyson Sphere?

Astronomers operating the space telescope Kepler have detected a large mega-structure orbiting a star 1500 light years away, which some suggest may be a huge orbiting energy collector for what would be a very advanced civilization of sentient beings—a Dyson Sphere structure! A recent article appearing on the Internet states the following:

A paper has been submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in which a particular star named KIC 8462852 is described.

“Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregulary shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the twenty percent level. We’d never seen anything like this star, it was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.” – Tabetha Boyajian, researcher at Yale University

The above quoted article is based on an article appearing in the Atlantic entitled, "NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovered Artificial Megastructure Built By An Advanced Alien Civilization".

On another website (wccftech) the discovery of another potential Dyson Sphere is posted in an article entitled, "A Second ‘Dyson Sphere’ Star Has Been Discovered – And We Have An Alternative Hypothesis To Explain Them".  Another article, "Search For Intelligent Aliens Near Bizarre Dimming Star Has Begun", indicates that the mysterious star system containing a potential Dyson Sphere is being probed by the Allen Radio Telescope array near San Francisco.

Kurzweil devotes a small  article ["Dyson sphere hunt using Kepler data"] to the discovery of this as as a potential Dyson Sphere.

A Dyson Sphere means that We are not alone in the Universe

If indeed a Dyson Sphere has been detected then some sentient beings in the universe have achieved a much higher level of civilization than our own. How do we recognize the various levels of civilization? How can we say that a particular civilization on another planet on another stellar system is more advanced than ours?

The Kardashev Scale of Civilizations

The Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964 proposed a three level scale to measure levels of possible civilizations of humanoids and other sentient beings of the universe. This scale, called the Kardashev scale, simply measures planetary economies by the amount of energy they consume.

On the planet Earth, we have a Type 1, or planetary civilization, in which we use energy that reaches us from our parent star, the Sun. Fossil fuels are a form of stored solar energy so that burning coal or using gasoline is tantamount to using energy from the Sun.

As dependant as we are on the energy of the sun, we receive but a minuscule portion of its output.  The Sun's energy output is estimated at 384.6 yotta Watts (1 yotta W = 1 x 1024  J s-1). See post on Energy Units. The amount of solar energy radiation arriving at the top of the atmosphere is about 1,368 W m-2 (Watts per square meter). This radiation spread out over the surface of the earth and averaged out over a diurnal cycle amounts to a total power of 1.730×1017 W. This is a lot of power reaching us. One year is 3.15×107 seconds. Multiplying this value of a year in seconds by the amount of power reaching from the Sun amounts to 5.46×1024J. The International Energy Agency estimates that, in 2013, total world energy consumption was 5.67 × 1020J. This is just about 0.010 % the total solar energy input for a year.

We have a long way to go in energy consumption before we begin to push our annual energy consumption to the top of the Kardashev Type I civilization scale.

File:World Map - Energy Use 2013.png

Fig. 1 World energy consumption per capita based on 2013 data from the World Bank on 17 September 2016 and entered into the public domain.

A few caveats should be added regarding the use of energy consumption as a measure of the level of a civilization. The per capita energy consumption is quite variable over the Earth as is apparent from this article and this figure, from which the displayed image (Fig. 1) is drawn. This image shows how variable the level energy consumption is of planet wide. It does seem to correlate with our ideas of the various levels of civilization around the globe. However, the raw use of energy is not a unique measure of the social progress of a given society, which depends on other factors (see the article and other image on Per Capita Energy Consumption vs. Social Progress). Just keeping warm demands a lot of energy for people living near the north and south poles, which may not necessarily contribute to their level of civilization. Further, different areas of the world use energy more efficiently or wisely than others.

Type II Civilizations and the Dyson Sphere

On the next level of potential cosmic civilizations, Type II on the Kardashev scale, sentient beings capture all of the output of their parent star, by building structures around it to increase the fraction of total energy output. A structure that completely surrounds their parent star is called a Dyson Sphere. By using a Dyson Sphere, a civilization can expand on a much bigger scale than that afforded by the limited area of the Earth. The Earth's surface is 4πRe2 , where Re=6.378 x 106 m is the Earth's radius. The inside surface of a sphere that has a radius equal to the Earth's distance from the Sun is 4πau2 , where 1 au=0.1496 x 1012 m. The inside surface of a Dyson Sphere would exceed that of the surface of the Earth by a factor of (1au/Re)2 = 5.502 x 108 times!

Type III Civilizations

A Type III civilization taps into energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy! Beyond that, after harnessing black holes, there is the energy of expansion of the entire universe, and that is really huge!

Is It All too Good to be True?

Many will say that all this is interesting but a bit too far out for practical consideration. Interesting SciFi stories can be written around these concepts: see for example the Star Trek episode "Relics", or Isaac Asimov's galactic civilization in the Foundation Series. But wait! Reality is strange and wonderful. What appears as today's SciFi may become tomorrow's science.

Future Posts on this Subject

The possibility that there may be higher order civilizations out there in the universe, have caught my imagination, as a result of which I have decided to write a series of posts discussing the matter. Look out for such articles in the future. What do you think?


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