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The Mystery of the 1977 “WOW” Signal

wow signal
January 19th, 2015

In August 1977, a mysterious signal from space was detected. It was a signal that would, even to this day, fuel the debate regarding the existence of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. For many, it was proof that we are not alone. This is the famous “Wow Signal”, whose origins have not yet been satisfactorily explained—unless it was a signal sent by another race of intelligent life forms.




Background History

Back in the 1960s, the scientific field of study known as SETI was underway. Novelists and pulp fiction writers have always had a following, and the iconic Star Trek was entering the collective psyche of the population. In the midst of all these, a couple of physicists from Cornell attempted to figure out how an advance alien civilization would try to communicate with others in the universe.

Their first guess is that radios signals would be used. That’s because radio transmissions didn’t require a lot of energy to generate. Radio signals also had the capacity to travel extraordinarily long distances across space.

The scientists also surmised that an alien intelligence should also be smart enough to figure out that the proper message to send out must be understandable to other science-minded people so that language barriers are irrelevant. Since chemical elements give off distinct electromagnetic frequencies and hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it is thought to be more likely that the signal frequency of hydrogen (1420 megahertz) would be replicated as a signal which can be recognized.

Receiving the Message

The so-called WOW signal fits these parameters perfectly. In August 1977, a scientist named Ehman was sifting through the computer printouts generated by the (now dismantled) Big Ear radio observatory in Ohio State University. One particular printout was so astounding that he encircled the specific numbers and letters (6EQUJ5, 6, and 7) and wrote “Wow!” on the printout.


wow signal

The printouts generated numbers and letters to signify the strength of radio signals it observed. The strength ranged from 1 to 35, so the printouts featured numbers from 1 to 9 and then letters were used. Virtually all the time the radio telescope was used, the numbers were almost always 1s and 2s, with a smattering of 3s and 4s here and there. Scientists regard these low number signals as background noise.

So imagine the excitement it caused when Ehman was sifting through the printouts and noticed the 6EQUJ5 printed out a few days before. The signal was so strong that the “U” signified that it was thirty times as strong as an ordinary signal.

And it wasn’t a momentary blip. It lasted for an entire 72 seconds. And it was narrowly focused and very close to 1420 megahertz.

Discarding Potential Explanations

It was understood very early on that this was probably not from a natural source of radiation like a planet, because those are believed to send out a much broader range of frequencies.

The signal also rose and fell, and that’s consistent with a signal from space. That eliminates the possibility of a computer glitch.

And it wasn’t a satellite, because orbiting satellites repeatedly broadcast their signals. It wasn’t even a “secret” satellite, because if so then it would have been stupid to broadcast on a frequency SETI scientists were monitoring.

Just recently (in 2012) we sent out a response. But as Arthur C. Clarke once said, “God only knows what it was.”


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