Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to know what exactly caused the Wow! signal. As much as some of us would love to use it as proof of extraterrestrial life, that would be a leap of faith, and unscientific at best. Astronomer Robert Gray describes it as “…a tug on the cosmic fishing line. It doesn’t prove that you have a fish on the line, but it does suggest that you keep your line in the water at that spot.”
SETI Wow Signal
Logically, the conclusion that must be drawn is that the Wow! signal very likely originated in deep space, but if it did then it was either a completely unknown astronomical phenomenon, or an intercepted alien broadcast — but with nothing else to go on, there’s no way to prove or disprove either of these ideas.
Alien Civilizations Documentary
For now, the Wow! signal remains as nothing more than a vague but enthralling hint that there may be more things lurking out there in this galaxy of ours than we currently know of.
This puts the source of the signal somewhere in the constellation of Sagittarius. There are a handful of nearby stars, but it’s impossible to tell precisely where the signal originated. At least, not unless we ever hear a repeat signal. And given that no repeat signal has yet been found in any of the searches, it’s probably best not to hold your breath.
SETI Alien Contact
This signal was very sharp, transmitting at only a single frequency. Natural radio sources don’t work like that. They spread across a range of frequencies, meaning that the same signal covers a broad band of transmission. The Wow! signal is not like this at all, showing only one very specific frequency at approximately 1420 MHz.
SETI Alien Message
1420 MHz, also known as the hydrogen line, is a frequency internationally banned from use by terrestrial radio signals because of its use in radio astronomy. Astronomically, it’s usually emitted by neutral hydrogen atoms in interstellar space. It’s observed roughly evenly in all directions, and has been used before to help map out the galaxy. But in the SETI program, it has another use.
SETI Alien Signal
For a start, the signal’s intensity was observed to rise and fall over a period of 72 seconds, consistent with the rotation of Earth, and a single source tracking across the sky, through the Big Ear telescope’s view. This gave the signal a characteristic signature, caused by objects seen in the sky. It would be nearly impossible for any Earth-bound object to match it.
SETI Makes Alien Contact
Nicknamed the “Wow!” signal, this was a brief burst of radio waves detected by astronomer Jerry Ehman who was working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope, Ohio. The signal was, in fact, so remarkable that Ehman circled it on the computer printout, writing “Wow!” in the margin — and unintentionally giving the received radio signal the name under which it would become famous.
Wow Signal Decoded
Despite a lot of effort, no identification has been found for the signal’s source, and no repeat signal has ever been found. It’s a complete mystery. The only conclusion that can be drawn is if the signal truly did originate in deep space, then it was either an astrophysical phenomenon of which we’ve never seen before, or it truly was an intercepted alien signal.
To explain scientific observations, the normal method is to construct hypotheses and then test them. If your hypothesis is incorrect, it will fail to explain the observation. You can then continue this way, using different hypotheses, until you find something which can accurately describe what you’ve observed (if you ever watch Mythbusters, you may be familiar with how this works).
But with the Wow! signal, researchers ran into difficulty. After trying and failing to find any repeat of the signal, Ehman was skeptical of its origin, stating that “something suggests it was an Earth-sourced signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris.”
Investigations found that it was scarcely possible the signal could have originated on Earth, and reflection off a piece of space junk was equally unlikely.
The received signal was very specific, and these explanations required too many assumptions. A pattern of logical thinking known as Occam’s razor was pointing towards this signal having an astrophysical origin. But this provided no explanation for what it might be.
SETI has seen astronomers scouring the sky for decades in hopes of receiving artificially generated radio signals sent by alien civilizations.
Updated: Jun 17, 2014
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