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What is The WOW Signal? Our Moment of First Contact, Almost!

Team StoryWeavers|August 16, 2022, 21:21 IST|

Was that E.T. or was it not? Nobody knows!

On August 15, 1977, the Big Ear Radio Telescope in Delaware, Ohio, received what was known to be the most powerful signal it had ever detected during its decade’s worth of observations. The signal was said to have lasted just 72 seconds, but when astronomer Jerry R Ehman spotted it on a computer printout days later, he simply was awestruck and wrote “Wow!” with a red pen across the printed page. The data looked much like what SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) astronomers would expect to see from an intelligent alien lifeform. 

However, despite several efforts by astronomers to find more such instances, the so-called “Wow! Signal” has never reappeared.

Also read: Astronomers Find ‘Spooky’ Object in Milky Way

Whatte Wow!

Since then, for 40 years, some have claimed the signal was made by aliens. While others have claimed that a star caused it. Many people even theorised as to what might have caused the signal, but there has been no single explanation that has been agreed upon yet. But this never stopped astronomers from repeatedly returning to the same part of the sky, searching for the return of the Wow! Signal.

After Ehman spotted the Wow! Signal, a team of astronomers along with him, kept Big Ear observing that same celestial spot for at least a month, yet they found nothing. They tried again a year later but to no avail. The SETI project at Big Ear to look for a similar signal again ultimately lasted for 24 long years, making it the longest-running continuous SETI search in history. However, during these years, the astronomers never picked up anything else quite like the Wow! Signal. According to what Ehman has said in several interviews following the incident, t we might never know exactly what the astronomer discovered on August 15, 1977. “No conclusion was ever possible other than it certainly had the potential of being a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence,” Ehman had told a news organisation.

Was it aliens or natural?

Over the years, several other astronomers across the world have followed up on the Wow! Signal, either trying to explain what it was exactly or relocate it. In 2017, Antonio Paris – an adjunct professor of astronomy at St Petersburg College, Florida and ex-analyst of the US Department of Defense, suggested that the signal was most likely generated by a comet and maybe it wasn’t from aliens. Paris and his team had then found out that two comets, 266P/Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs), were passing through the part of the sky when Big Ear Radio Observatory had spotted the Wow! Signal. Paris and his team of astronomers firmly believed that the Wow! Signal came from a hydrogen cloud accompanying one or the other comet. Their evidence would explain why the signal had not been measured again — the comet that caused it moved on in its orbit.

Also read: 15 Facts About Space That Will Rock Your World

However, it has still not been confirmed whether the signal was an attempt from other-worldly life to contact humanity or simply a misinterpreted natural phenomenon. So, ultimately the Wow! Signal remains an unsolved mystery of the great beyond, even 45 years after its discovery.

What do you think was behind the Wow! Signal? Are we alone in this universe, or is there intelligent life out there? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author

Writing has always been Shreesha’s passion, be it for imparting knowledge or expressing opinions. In her former role as a journalist, she contributed to enriching society with knowledge. Now, at BYJU’S, she has moved on to something more exciting – creating tailor-made content for students. When she is not writing, you would find her looking for new ways to engage her child.

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