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St. Petersburg College astronomer Antonio Paris believes that a comet called 266P/Christensen, uncatalogued at the time that the “Wow!” signal was first discovered, may actually have been the signal’s source. However, not all astronomers agree — including Jerry Ehman, the astronomer who discovered the signal in 1977. “We do not believe the two-comets theory can explain the Wow! signal,” Ehman told Live Science on June 12.
Ehman reviewed Paris’s work with Robert Dixon, the director of the radio observatory at The Ohio State University. The team agreed on two major problems with the conclusions that Paris drew. First, the signal didn’t repeat. Second, it appeared for a very short time. Ehman also noted that the configuration of the Big Ear telescope should have allowed for a repeat if the source was a comet; instead, there was only one, as if the source was abruptly cut off. The telescope had two “feed horns,” and each offered a slightly different field of view.
“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,” Ehman told Live Science. “We didn’t see the second one.”
The frequency of transmission is also problematic. SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak argues that comets wouldn’t generate sufficient hydrogen to create the signal. “I don’t think anyone ever found such emission from comets,” Shostak told Live Science.
So, does this lend credence to the theory that the “Wow!” signal was sent by aliens?
In 1977, the sound of extraterrestrials was heard by human ears for the first time — or so people at the time thought. The Wow! Signal was detected by astronomer Jerry Ehman using Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. It is a radio signal detector that, at the time, was pointed at a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius.
When scanning the skies around the stars, Ehman captured a 72 second burst of radio waves: He circled the reading and wrote “Wow!: next to it, hence the signal’s name. Over the last 40 years, the signal has been cited as evidence that we are not alone in the galaxy. Experts and laypeople alike believed that, finally, we had evidence of alien life.
These comets, known as 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, have clouds of hydrogen gas millions of kilometers in diameter surrounding them. The Wow! Signal was detected at 1420MHz, which is the radio frequency hydrogen naturally emits. Notably, the team has verified that the comets were within the vicinity at the time, and they report that the radio signals from 266/P Christensen matched those from the Wow! signal.
Other Extraterrestrial Communications
While this discovery is a disappointment to alien enthusiasts everywhere, as the Wow! Signal is the strongest signal we have ever received from space, it is a testament to our ability to accurately interpret signals and sounds from the cosmos. This gives us hope in our attempt to decode the hundreds of “strange, alien” signals coming from other stars that have been observed recently.
We have several weapons in our cosmic detection arsenal, most of which are used by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). Their main means of detection is using radio-telescopes, and their most ambitious project to date has been ‘Project Phoenix’; the “world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
For this project, they used three of world’s biggest radio telescopes: the Parkes radio telescope in Australia (210 feet in diameter), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia (140 feet in diameter), and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (the world’s largest at 1,000 feet in diameter). They have also built The Allen Telescope Array with financial backing from Paul Allen.
While the technology for detecting alien messages is remaining relatively static, ideas for communicating better with our own satellites is advancing rapidly, with possibilities including communicating by a laser beam and establishing a space satellite network.