The 1977 Wow! signal, an inexplicable radio transmission received in Ohio State University’s observatory, might have come from extraterrestrials.
There’s a color copy scan of the original computer printout of the Wow! signal, taken several years after its arrival, by, the Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical Observatory, NAAPO.
It has numbers and letters and “Wow!,” written by volunteer astronomer Jerry Ehman, in cursive handwriting. The National Geographic Channel and the Puerto Rican Arecibo Observatory are working together to try to contact the message’s writers.
WOW! Message Discovered
Jerry Ehman was a volunteer researcher for Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio observatory which was closed and dismantled in 1997. He inspected data from the telescope’s scan of the sky for August 15th.
Then, information was run through an IBM 1130 mainframe computer, printed on perforated paper and examined by hand. Ehman noticed something amazing – 140 characters and a vertical column with the alphanumerical sequence “6EQUJ5” that happened at 10:16 PM, EST. He circled it and wrote “Wow!” in the margin, using a red pen.
His exhilaration over the piece of esoteric information was from Big Ear’s mission, searching space for radio signals that might be originated by aliens, if they were trying to contact intelligent life somewhere in the universe.
Ehman saw that this signal came from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius and looked like it could be an alien message. Observatory director John Krauss and his assistant Bob Dixon, who examined the data, were also astonished by it.
What was WOW!?
More than thirty years later, the Wow Signal, as SETI institute researchers dubbed it, is the first and best potential evidence of communication from aliens and one of science’s most baffling mysteries. The institute’s mission is to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”
Ehman and his colleagues worked to rule out other explanations, including satellites, aircraft or Earth’s ground-based transmitters; however researchers haven’t been able to prove that it’s a message from space. Ehman told the Columbus Dispatch in 2010, “It’s an open question.”
Theories about Alien Communication
Cornell physicists Philip Morrison and Guiseppe Cocconi tried to figure out how a distant alien civilization, if one existed, could try to contact others in the universe, in the early 1960s. They theorized that aliens would use a radio signal because the transmissions require moderately little energy to generate and can travel vast distances across space.
They presumed that aliens would be intelligent enough to choose a message that other intelligent beings might understand, even if they had a different language. Chemicals emit distinctive electromagnetic frequencies which is how astronomers determine the structure of distant planets and stars from their light.
Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, emits a signal with a frequency of 1420 megahertz, so they thought that aliens could send out a signal that mimicked it.
WOW! Difficult to Explain
The signal Ehman saw was the first one that appeared to almost precisely fit the description. Every digit on the printout represented the strength of a radio signal, from zero to 35, with intensities over nine represented by letters.
Most of the signals were ones and twos. One, as signified by the letter “U” in the middle of the message, was extremely powerful, about thirty times greater than the usual noise of deep space. It was the loudest, longest signal that Big Ear would pick up. The signal was narrowly focused and very close to 1420 megahertz, the frequency of hydrogen.
The message was complex to explain. Scientists were bewildered when they traced the signal to a location northwest of the globular cluster M55, a place where there apparently was neither star nor planet. In 1997, SETI researcher Paul Shuch told New Scientist magazine that, if the signal came from aliens, it would have required some remarkably advanced equipment.
Supposing that the extraterrestrial beacon was the size of the largest radio telescopes on Earth, the aliens would have needed a 2.2 gigawatt transmitter, infinitely more powerful than any existing terrestrial radio station.
The most perplexing thing about the Wow signal was that it lasted about 72 seconds and never was detected again, although, in the twenty ensuing years, scientists conducted over one hundred studies of the same area of sky.
They wondered if aliens were trying to contact humans, wouldn’t they keep repeating their message. In the early 2000s, researchers tried to detect a message, using a 26-meter radio telescope in Hobart, Tasmania that was smaller than Big Ear, but more technologically advanced.
In 2003, the Astrobiology Magazine reported that, despite their ability to detect signals only five percent as strong as the Wow Signal, they found nothing that resembled it.
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It is intriguing that a complex 72-second radio sequence would be transmitted by an alien source only once. Then again, it only takes one to find one.