The “Wow!” Signal?

On August 15, 1977, Dr. Jerry Ehman detected a strange radio signal while working with Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. The signal lasted for 72 seconds and appeared to be of non-terrestrial origin. Dr. Ehman quickly circled the signal’s markings on a piece of paper and wrote “Wow!” next to it. What was the “Wow!” Signal?

What was the “Wow!” Signal?

Well, the jury is still out on this question. The “Wow!” signal appeared to originate from the constellation Sagittarius, close to the Chi Sagittarii star group. However, despite multiple attempts over the last three decades, no one has been able to re-detect it. Even Dr. Ehman came to doubt the “Wow!” signal was of extraterrestrial origin.

“Even if it were intelligent beings sending a signal, they’d do it far more than once. We should have seen it again when we looked for it 50 times. Something suggests it was an Earth-bound signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris.” ~ Dr. Jerry Ehman, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 18, 1994

It should be noted Dr. Ehman later qualified this statement. However, he remains skeptical the “Wow!” signal originated from an extraterrestrial source. While we are no closer to solving the mystery of the “Wow!” Signal, plenty of dedicated researchers are still trying to understand it. Here’s an excerpt from an interesting interview on the “Wow!” signal from The Atlantic with one of those researchers, Robert Gray:

Is it possible that the “Wow!” signal is somehow a computer glitch, or a signal from earth that was reflected off of space debris of some sort?

Gray: Of course it’s possible. It could have been any number of things. However, it almost certainly wasn’t a computer glitch, because it showed this rise and fall of intensity that’s just exactly what a radio source from the sky would look like. Also, the Ohio State radio telescope was cleverly rigged to filter out local stuff.

The only thing that conceivably could have made that special signature is a satellite of some sort at just the right distance, going just the right speed, in order to mimic a celestial object traversing the sky. So that’s a possibility, but it seems pretty unlikely for a number of reasons. First, it would have been seen by a lot of people. Ohio State would have seen it repeatedly, because satellites broadcast repeatedly. Secondly, if it was a secret satellite it would have been pretty stupid to broadcast at a frequency that radio astronomers across the world listen to.

For a long time, Jerry Ehman, who actually scribbled “Wow!” on the original computer printout, considered the possibility that it was a piece of space debris reflecting a signal from the earth back down into the antenna. But he no longer believes that to be the case. And I’m not saying that it definitely was an extraterrestrial broadcast; there’s no proof of that. The best way I can think to analogize this thing is to say that it was 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…

(SeeĀ The ‘Wow!’ Signal: One Man’s Search for SETI’s Most Tantalizing Trace of Alien Life for the rest)

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