Wow! Signal, Might Not be so Wow!

In 1977, Ohio State University Radio Observatory, or Big Ear, was searching the heavens for extraterrestrial radio signals. In August of that year, analyst Jerry Ehman spotted a significantly longer and stronger signal thWow_signalan previously recorded, circled the printout and wrote “Wow!” in the margins. This signal’s frequency was very close to what observers hypothesized an intelligent transmission might look like. It was never picked up again.

An independent group of interested parties renewed my interest in the Wow! Signal when they launched the Arecibo Project in 2014. I’ve been checking in on their website, and although it’s interesting, there have been no concrete findings.

But now, Antonio Paris, an astronomer at St. Petersburg College in Florida and Director of the Aerial Phenomena Investigation Team may have an explanation for the signal. It’s not aliens; it’s comets.

A vast amount of hydrogen is released when comets swing around the sun, and ultraviolet radiation splits water vapor molecules (water is H2O, hydrogen and oxygen). The release of hydrogen is significant because the frequency they were looking for in 1977 was the signal emitted by hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, and the idea was that other intelligent beings would recognize this fact and use it for communication. The Wow! Signal was very close to the 1420 megahertz signal that hydrogen emits.


By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (own work) or GFDL via Wikimedia Commons



Tracing the path of two comets back to August of 1977, Paris feels it’s possible they were in the vicinity of Big Ear during that time. In 1977, no one knew Comet 266P/Christensen or Comet P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) existed, so there was no way to attribute the signal to them.

Other experts are skeptical about Paris’ hypothesis. Some doubt that comets could generate enough hydrogen to create a signal as strong as the Wow! Signal, otherwise they would be picking up this type of signature more often, which they don’t.

The two comets in question will pass by the same region in January of 2017 (Comet 266P/Christensen) and January of 2018 (P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs)). Analysis of the hydrogen signals should reveal if Paris’ hypothesis is correct.

Paris’ hypothesis seems perfectly reasonable and quite likely. There is a part of me; however, that hopes he is not correct. I like the idea that aliens are possibly trying to reach out to us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not down with War of Worlds or Independence Day type aliens, but the possibilities of who or what is out in the cosmos intrigues me.


Until next time, Never Turn off the Lights, and keep an eye on the night skies. You never know who may drop by for a visit…or domination.

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