When I opened my e-mail this morning, I was stunned to find a number of messages all regarding the same astronomical oddity. Since it is rare for astronomy to make headlines, this was a most interesting start to the morning.

The topic that everyone is talking about today is the so-called 'most mysterious star in the galaxy' (as several of these e-mails called it). And the reason this star has everyone talking today is that one of the most plausible explanations for it is that it is home to a technologically advanced civilization. (The official research paper can be viewed here)

Since 2009, the Kepler space telescope has been observing stars throughout our galaxy, searching for new planets. By measuring the fluctuations in both the intensity and the colour of light coming from distant stars, we can determine which ones have large objects orbiting them, and using standard physics equations we can further deduce things like the orbital period, the radius of the orbit, the mass of the planet, and to some degree the composition of the planet. Using these methods, the Kepler team have already discovered a few thousand new planets.

But one of these stars is not like the others. In 2011, citizen scientists from around the world who had volunteered to examine the Kepler data started to flag one star as being very different. Between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, there was a single star which was quite faint and had odd fluctuations. They were so odd in fact that of 150,000 other stars that have been studied, not one had the same patterns as this mysterious object.

Many people would just ignore this oddity as being something that only an astronomer could enjoy. But the fluctuations on this star tell a very strange story. When the standard methods of hunting exoplanets are applied to this star, it reveals not one planet or a few planets, but possibly thousands of small objects. And while a young star surrounded by rocks and dust could have this signature, this is a mature star that should not still have a dust cloud surrounding it.

So what could it be? Maybe that solar system had a large collision of two planets that made an asteroid field close to the star. Maybe the star itself collided with some form of debris field and trapped them into orbit. These are certainly possible explanations, but neither system would survive for very long so it would be an odd coincidence that they formed close to the time when we can measure them.

The possibility that has the internet buzzing is that this could be the signature of a very advanced civilization. Those small objects orbiting the star could, in theory at least, be solar powered satellites that collect power. Or they could be space structures built by an alien species who have chose to live in space rather than on a planetary surface, or a Dyson sphere built by aliens to harvest more energy from their sun. One online report (of dubious quality) even suggested a colony of very large aliens who actually live in space. 

Clearly it is far too soon to be calling this a discovery of extraterrestrial life. Asteroids and dust are still the most probable explanation. However this discovery has prompted the SETI researchers to examine the radio waves and other electromagnetic signatures around the mystery star to see if there is any sign of an intelligence, or at least a signal that is not natural. 

For now, it is just an interesting piece of astronomy and something that will be debated by astrophysicists for the next few years. However if the SETI team do get a positive result, then it will make this star even more interesting!