Listen to This #2:

Tabby’s Star

This is the story behind what astronomers have called "the most mysterious star in the galaxy".

I first heard about Tabby’s Star the way most others did — on my Facebook news feed. The story was sensational, portrayed by headlines dabbled with the words “aliens”, “Dyson sphere”, “mysterious”, and a lot of rhetorical question marks. The clickbait worked and my curiosity was piqued, so down the rabbit hole I went, and what I found was a fascinating story.

In a nutshell, astronomers were scratching their heads over strange light curves from an otherwise ordinary star in the constellation Cygnus, named KIC 8462852, or “Tabby’s Star” after the lead astronomer on the case, Tabetha Boyajian. Something was orbiting around Tabby’s Star — something big — but nobody could figure out what it was.

This is the story of Tabby’s Star.

"There's one light curve among all the 150,000 stars that the Kepler Spacecraft looked at, which is just totally unique. There's nothing else like it. And that's the light curve for Tabby's Star."

When it was passed to me I was like "what's this?" And I was like, I have no idea. And there were a couple other people there with me and I showed it to them and they were like "I don't know, that's weird!" And I think over the years, nobody has anything to say other than "That's very… peculiar." At least 100 professional astronomers have seen this light curve and couldn't attribute it to anything we know of.

Tabetha BoyajianAstronomer and astrophysicist, Louisiana State University

It seems like a long time has passed now since the original Kepler mission ended and we never forgot about this light curve, I don’t think any of us on amateur side ever expected it’d be the most interesting light curve we found.

Daryll LaCourseAmateur astronomer, Planet Hunter

I think we both have two categories of explanations for what's going on, we have the good ideas, the good explanations, and bad explanations, and the good explanation column is empty. We just don't have any good explanations. The bad explanations all don't work in some way, and so we rank by how implausible they are, because they're all implausible, or impossible.

Jason WrightAssociate Professor of Astronomy, Pennsylvania State University

The sky is full of stars, and astronomers have a hard time exploring all of them, and when you start looking at things closely, you start coming up with these anomalies and things that are whacko weird, and so on that level Tabby's Star is just one of a long succession of stars in the sky which at the time we first discovered we didn't really know what they were doing, many of those we have since understood, some of them we haven’t.

Bradley SchaeferProfessor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Louisiana State University
Special thanks

Special thanks of course to my interviewees who generously gave their time to answer my questions: Tabetha Boyajian, Jason Wright, Andrew Siemion, Bradley Schaefer, Daryll LaCourse and Ross Andersen.

Also worth noting are the original amateur astronomers who first flagged the anomalies in KIC 8462852’s light curve: Andrew Szewczyk, Sam Goodman, and Abe Hoekstra.


Music in this episode was by Lee Rosevere, Corsica S, Chris ZabriskieSergey CheremisinovLittle Glass MenLee Maddeford, and Ketsa. You also heard excerpts from “CTA 102” by The Byrds, the X Files Theme, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.