Does the “Wow!” Signal from Space Mean Aliens Are Contacting Us?

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Have you ever heard about the “Wow!” signal? The story goes that on the evening of August 15, 1977, researchers at Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope heard it for the first and only time. Later described by astronomer Jerry Ehman as a 72-second radio signal which was “loud” and “more intense than anything in the background sky that night” the signal soon got its fitting name from just how unique it truly was. Additional details, including the fact that it did not repeat, lead researchers to theorize broadly on what could have caused the sound.

At the time, back in 1977, the team at Big Ear was actually actively looking for alien signals, or “SETI”. Since there was no repeat of the signal, researchers sadly could not confirm its source, nor even its precise location in the sky. Eventually, most scientists seemed to agree to disagree on what had caused the noise.

But that wasn’t good enough for former U.S. Department of Defense analyst Antonio Paris. Drawing on his field of work prior to becoming an astrophysicist at St. Petersburg College, Paris stated that he approached the Wow! signal as he would have a “cold case” Says Paris,“I have this investigative background, so I approached the ‘Wow!’ signal as I’m going back to the crime scene. It’s a cold case, so I went to various [astronomical] databases to find culprits or suspects that were at this crime scene at the time.”

According to Paris’s calculations on the “scene”, a comet (specifically Comet 266P/Christensen) was in the correct approximate range on the date in question and was able to emit a signal potentially identical to the Wow! heard before. In an interview with Live Science, Paris shared that in the second phase of his study he was able to prove his hypothesis that comets do appear to emit 1,420 megahertz signals like the Wow! did. Additionally, the comet is thought to have passed near (approximately 2 degrees north) of the presumed Wow! signal’s locale. Lead researcher on the team at The Center for Planetary Science, Paris concluded that the team “cannot say with certainty that the Wow! signal was generated by 266/P Christensen, but they can say with relative assurance that it was generated by a comet”.

However, some disagree with Paris, including the original astronomer on the case. Jerry Ehman claims that since there was never a repeat of the sound, it could not have been a comet. Ehman explains that, with the way the Big Ear equipment was arranged with two “feed horns”, “We should have seen the source come through twice in about 3 minutes: one response lasting 72 seconds and a second response for 72 seconds following within about a minute and a half. We didn’t see the second one.” Additionally, according to Ehman, a comet would not have disappeared from their field of view so easily on the night in question, nor could it have cut off abruptly creating only one sound (not repeated) due to its expansive covering of gases.

Having considered all potential sources regarding the origin of the sound, researchers have suggested there are numerous possibilities including “even signals from Earth”. Ehman himself posits that fast radio bursts, or FRBs, may be to blame since the end of such transmissions may appear like the Wow! signal did. While he doesn’t necessarily speculate that the sound was emitted by an extra-terrestrial, no one can rule it out either. It seems more research is in order to confirm without a doubt what made the Wow! Sound.

Lauren is a part-time editorial and graphic contributor at 301 Digital Media who has a strange obsession with cats and a love for Drake that will never be reciprocated. Follow her on Instagram: @lpetermeyer