On Aug. 15, 1977 at 10:16 p.m. ET Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope detected a curious signal from deep space. Nearly 40 years later, we finally know what caused it and, sadly, it’s not aliens.
For decades, the signal has been the strongest piece of “go-to” evidence that intelligent extraterrestrials are out there in our galaxy. When found by astronomer Jerry Ehman on that fateful night, the 72-second signal — that had been recorded on a computer printout — certainly stood out.
While pointing at three star systems called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation of Sagittarius, Big Ear had picked up a powerful burst of radio waves. To the untrained eye, the assortment of printed digits might not mean much, but as I wrote in 2016, those letters and numbers could hold the answer to the biggest question we’re currently asking of the universe: Are we alone?
The Big Ear printout contains a bunch of apparently random numbers and letters, but Ehman’s red pen circles a cluster of digits “6EQUJ5” with other circles around a “6” and “7” on separate columns. This particular code first uses the numbers 1-9 and then the alphabet A-Z to denote signal strength. As the burst suggests, the signal strength hit “6” and then blasted through the letters reaching a peak of “U” before subsiding back into the numerical scale at “5.” There was then a slight wave trailing the main signal (hence the circled “6″ and “7″). The wave profile of the “Wow!” signal is graphically envisaged here. (Discovery News, April 18, 2016)
The maddening thing about the Wow! signal has always been a lack of replication. To science, one random signal in the dark proves nothing. It would be like trying to plot a trend line on a graph with one data point. More data is obviously needed and yet, since 1977, there’s been no other radio signal quite like it.
Curious, yes. Definite proof of chatty aliens? A solid nope.
So, when researching other possible causes of the Wow! signal that were also rare occurrences (but not aliens), Antonio Paris of St Petersburg College, Fla. (and an ex-analyst of the US Department of Defense), suggested that the signal might have been generated by one of two comets that serendipitously drifted into the line of sight of the Big Ear radio telescope.
In 1977, neither 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs were known of (they were discovered in 2006 and 2008 respectively) and Paris calculated that both comets would have been in the right place in the sky when the Wow! signal was recorded.
What’s more, the Wow! signal has a frequency of 1420MHz — the same frequency that neutral hydrogen radiates at. Hydrogen is abundant in our universe, so this frequency is commonly observed in astronomy.
At first blush, observing in this frequency to look for alien transmissions might seem like a fool’s errand; if the universe is humming in hydrogen noise, why would aliens bother using that frequency to ping their extraterrestrial neighbors?
Through SETI logic, the frequency of neutral hydrogen might be used by advanced civilizations as a kind of interstellar water cooler. It is the most abundant signal in the universe, every intelligent life-form would know this. So why not use 1420MHz as THE frequency to communicate across the light-years in hopes that other civilizations might already be tuned in?
But a SETI signal would need to stand out from the crowd — it would need to be powerful and possess other qualities that hint at its artificial nature. But should a comet quickly pass through the observing window of a radio telescope, Paris predicted that the received 1420MHz signal might mimic that of an artificial source.
And this year, an opportunity presented itself. Comet 266P/Christensen would pass through the sky in a similar orbital position as it did in 1977. During an observing campaign from November 2016 to February 2017, Paris studied the radio frequencies coming from the region and from the comet itself. He also compared these observations with other known comets.
The upshot: 266P is indeed producing a strong 1420MHz signal, as are other comets.
“The results of this investigation, therefore, conclude that cometary spectra are detectable at 1420 MHz and, more importantly, that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a solar system body,” he writes in a study published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences
It appears that, in this case, the signal wasn’t aliens trying to make contact with us; it was a chance comet that just happened to be in the right place at the right time.