This illustration shows potential comet fragments orbiting the WTF star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
When you look up at the night sky, you get to see the light from nearby bright stars for free. But to get a better view of the stars (especially the dimmer and distant ones) astronomers use really large telescopes–and that gander comes at an astronomical price. That’s because unlike the telescopes some of us owned as kids, astronomers don’t own actually own the telescopes they need to do their work. In fact, they have to share them with other astronomers. Most of the big telescopes are co-owned by multiple universities, and can only be used by scientists who belong to participating universities. Other telescopes are privately owned and rely on grant funding to run. And what it all adds up to is money: a lot of money. The funding barrier for the privilege to use these special telescopes is a large one, but the curiosity and exploration motivating the science is priceless.
Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, found she needed some of this deep-pocketed telescope time after discovering a peculiar object that made headline news last fall. The WTF “Where’s the Flux” star, also knowns as “Tabby’s Star” and formally known as KIC 8462852, is missing a large portion of its light. Something is blocking this light from reaching us (seen as a dip in the graph of light coming from the star), and the media, and admittedly some scientists, jumped on the alien bandwagon to explain the strange phenomenon. But rather than blaming aliens, Boyajian and her team hypothesized several scenarios for why the star’s light was blocked, like a flurry of dusty comet fragments orbiting around the star, or multiple planets, or an asteroid belt.
To test this hypothesis, Boyajian and her team want to make follow-up observations. But since the NASA Kepler Space Telescope that the star was originally observed with has moved on to look at other things, the star needs a new photographer. The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), a network of telescopes around the world that continuously watches an object for an extended amount of time, awarded the team 200 hours to start their observations. This gift will take them to the end of summer, but then they will need their own funding to continue observing for the rest of a full year. Since astronomers don’t know what is causing the starlight to dim, they can’t predict a specific time to see it happen again. The best shot of seeing it again is therefore to observe it for as long as possible. But projects like these are statistically unlikely to get funded by NASA and the NSF, so this team turned to crowdfunding.
Boyajian made a Kickstarter campaign asking the public for help with the funding. For different donation amounts, participants could choose between receiving an email thank you for their support, having their name listed on the project web page, or being able to vote on naming the next dip. For serious donators, $1,000 bought the rights to have their name listed in the acknowledgments section of any scientific papers that resulted from the campaign. Participants who shelled out a whopping $5,000 were invited to attend a lecture on the project’s status and results, and the chance to nominate a name for the next dip! The campaign set out to raise $100,000 to pay for the necessary telescope time to get more data on this star, and it raised 107% of their goal in 30 days from 1,762 people!
Now that the campaign is over, the WTF team is excited to get the kickball rolling. Boyajian thanked the backers for “the observations YOU HELPED MAKE HAPPEN.” The new observations are scheduled to begin after the LCOGT summer observing time runs out. While the team is currently monitoring the star, they are also working with the LCOGT staff to create a custom data management system, and will keep the backers updated as things progress. If you missed your chance to donate, one backer has suggested that the team keep taking collections throughout the year to hopefully be able to continually extend their observing time, so your opportunity may arise again!
This incredible success is largely attributed to the public passion for space exploration. Studies show that research benefits from public outreach and the public benefits from participation. Boyajian and her team have made it clear that when you want something, it pays to ask for it.