Home Universe 22 Interesting Wow! Signal Facts

22 Interesting Wow! Signal Facts

by Sankalan Baidya
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The hunt for extraterrestrial life form continues till date but with no success. But in late 1970’s something weird happened. Something that, for a few moments, made the scientists believe that alien life form tried to contact us. Earthlings received a radio signal from deep space for over a minute which, by all means, was unusual and hence the excitement. However, joy did not last long and all hopes simply dwindled away. That signal became popular by the name Wow! Signal. Today, more than 35 years after the signal was received, we still don’t know anything about its source or purpose. Let us learn 22 interesting Wow! Signal facts and find out what really happened and why is has been named so weirdly.

Interesting Wow! Signal Facts: 1-11

1. August 15, 1977, a tantalizing radio signal reaches earth from outer deep space only to be picked up by Big Ear radio observatory (which is now defunct and dismantled).

2. The signal was noticed by Jerry Ehman – a 37-year-old volunteer researcher working at Ohio State University where Big Ear was installed.

3. Back in those days, IBM 1130 mainframe computers were used for analyzing information. The analyzed information was then printed by the computers on perforated papers which were later manually examined. Nothing changed for this signal as well!

4. Once the data was printed, Ehman noticed a vertical sequence which was alpha-numeric.

5. Jerry simply picked up a red pen and circled out the vertical sequence (which was 6EQUJ5). On the left he just wrote the word ‘Wow!’. That’s how the signal received its name and became popular was Wow! Signal.

6. Scientists keep receiving signals but in case of Wow! Signal, things were pretty different. Jerry was working for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and Big Ear’s mission was to scan deep space to pick up signals that might be sent out by intelligent life forms in search of other intelligent life forms elsewhere in universe.

7. Radio signals received by scientists usually have a certain amount of intensity that is represented by digits 1 to 9 with 1 representing the intensity of 1.0 and 9 representing the intensity of 9.9, for intensities that are equal to or greater than 10.0 are represented by letters A to U.

8. A stands for intensity between 10.0 and 11.0. B represents intensity between 11.0 and 12.0 and so on. U represents the highest intensity between 30.0 and 31.0. The Wow! Signal had four letters with one of them being U.

9. What was really perplexing was that the Wow! Signal had intensity about 30 times greater than the average ambient noise of deep space.

10. Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, the two Cornell physicists in 1960s tried to explain that if at all distant intelligent civilizations tried to make contact, how they would do so. They came up with two different hypothesis:

  • They will make use of radio signals because of radio signals can travel very long distances and require less energy.
  • The will send signals that other intelligent races can understand even if they speak a completely different language. According to the Cocconi and Morrison, every chemical has a very distinct electromagnetic frequency and since hydrogen universe’s one of the most abundant element with a frequency of 1420 MHz, the alien race trying to make contact will probably send a frequency that is similar to hydrogen’s frequency.

11. What Jerry Ehman found was that not only the signal was significantly louder than the average ambient deep space noise but was also extremely close the frequency of hydrogen, thus fitting the hypothesis of Cocconi and Morrison.

Interesting Wow! Signal Facts: 12-22

12. Furthermore, the signal was narrowly focused, which simply means that the frequencies were pretty close to each other. In contrast, the radio signals emanating out of celestial bodies like planets have a broader frequency range.

13. So, a narrowly focused radio signal with frequency close to that given out by hydrogen – there was absolutely no reason for Ehman or other SETI scientists to not consider it as a signal coming from an alien civilization.

14. Based on Cocconi’s and Morrison’s hypothesis as well as the frequency range of the signal, it was ruled out by SETI scientists that the signal came from natural sources like planets. However, they could not give a definitive proof that the signal came from an alien race.

15. Scientists tried tracing back the source of the signal and found it came from Sagittarius constellation’s M55 globular cluster’s northwest direction.

16. The real puzzle was that the spot from where the scientists believe the signal sequence originated has no planets or stars.

17. As if that wasn’t enough to heighten the mystery, the signal sequence lasted only for 72 seconds and was never heard of again. So, if an alien race was trying to make contact, why would they stop with just one attempt?

18. About the 72 seconds duration of the signal, there was a good explanation. The Big Ear radio telescope was designed to be fixed. It was unable to move independently and scanned the sky using only Earth’s rotation.

19. Given the Earth’s 24-hour rotation cycle, the Big Ear was able to scan any given point in sky for no more than 72 seconds with gradual increase in signal intensity for first 36 seconds followed by a gradual drop. The signal sequence 6EQUJ5 conformed to design and function of the Big Ear.

20. The transmission time as well as the intensity graph of the Wow! Signal clearly indicated that it was of extraterrestrial origin and was in no way just a random signal sequence picked up from sky.

21. For the following 20 years (i.e. until the Big Ear was dismantled in 1997) SETI researched conducted 100 different studies, all directed towards the origin of the signal. Unfortunately, nothing happened.

22. On the 35th anniversary of Wow! Signal in 2012, Arecibo Observatory beamed out a response signal to the exact same direction. The signal contained 10,000 Twitter messages. Scientists hope that if intelligent life exists out there, they will pick up the coded radio signal and decode it and understand that the message was intentionally sent from another intelligent civilization as a big ‘Hello’.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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