Was the Wow! Signal Alien?

A signal received by a radio telescope in 1977 may be the best evidence yet for extraterrestrial intelligence.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, General Science

Skeptoid #342
December 25, 2012
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Wow! Signal

Jerry Ehman's original handwritten "Wow!"
Photo credit: The Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical Observatory

It was August 15, 1977, when astronomer Jerry Ehman was examining data coming from Ohio State University's radio telescope, which was engaged in listening for signals from deep space, hoping to find something of intelligent origin. In a moment that's since become one of the most famous events in astronomy, he saw a sequence of six characters on the printout — 6EQUJ5 — which caught his attention. So much so, in fact, that he circled the text, and wrote "Wow!" in the margin.

It was, apparently, a signal from outer space. It came from the direction of Sagittarius. The strength of the signal was represented by the digits 0-9 and the letters A-Z, a scale of 36 levels of intensity, rising with 6EQ and falling with UJ5, a near-perfect bell curve of signal strength spread over 72 seconds. All speculation and hype aside, Wow! remains the strongest candidate ever detected for an alien radio transmission.

SETI stands for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, but there is no single SETI group. For a long time, many different organizations have engaged in their own searches, but there's no central authoritative project. Virtually every radio telescope is used at least part time by some group scanning the skies looking for signals that might come from some interstellar source. The longest single search project was carried out by Ohio State University, from 1972 to 1997.

When you hear about the Wow! signal, one of the most important and obvious questions to ask is where it came from, and what's there. To understand where the signal came from, and (at least as importantly) how we know where it came from, it's necessary to understand the workings of the interesting radio telescope that received it.

Ohio State's "Big Ear" radio telescope was, well, big. The telescope no longer exists, having been disassembled in 1998 and its acreage used to expand a neighboring golf course. Its main feature was a vast aluminum ground plane, 150 meters by 85 meters, about three times the area of an average professional soccer pitch, and aligned north-south. Near the middle of its north end were a pair of receiving horns, looking like giant foghorns, pointing south. They were at the focus of a great paraboloidal reflector, 110 meters by 21 meters, standing across the southern end like a giant curved movie screen. This reflector received the signal bouncing off a tiltable flat reflector spanning the north end, just beyond the receiving horns, 104 meters by 30 meters. As the Earth rotated, the Big Ear swept the sky in a single line. After a few days of data gathering, the flat reflector could be tilted a tiny bit, moving that line of study up or down across the sky. It had a total tilting range of 50°. The Big Ear's design was called a Kraus telescope, after Ohio State's Dr. John Kraus who designed it and came up with its $250,000 cost, including a $71,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. It was built by the students.

In 1980, a feature was added to the Big Ear that could have come in very handy when the Wow! signal was detected; and that was a set of tracks upon which the receiving horns could move east or west across the face of the flat reflector. This allowed the telescope to fix its view on the sky at any given point when an interesting signal was detected, compensating for the movement of the Earth's rotation, and allowing a single spot to be studied for a time. Crucially, this feature was not yet installed in 1977; so the telescope swept across the Wow! signal for the duration of its detection. It took 72 seconds for the Earth's rotation to move any given point in the sky across the Big Ear's reflectors, and that's why the recorded portion of the Wow! signal was 72 seconds long.

In 1977, there was no automated computer analysis of the Big Ear's recordings. Its data was printed out on paper, and volunteers looked it over manually. This is what Jerry Ehman was doing when he saw the data, circled it, and wrote "Wow!"

The Big Ear would alternate recording between the two receiving horns. Subtracting the signal from one horn from that of the other was a way to identify and reduce noise in the signal. This cleaned-up signal is what got recorded. The horns were physically right beside each other, so each was focused on a slightly different position in the sky — about two minutes apart, by the speed at which the sky rotates past. It's known that the Wow! signal was audible to only one of the two horns, but there was no way to tell which one because of the way the signal was recorded. The Wow! source either started or stopped inside the time gap between the two horns, and lasted less than 24 hours, since it was not detected at that same declination either the day before or the day after. So it's not known how long the actual signal lasted; somewhere between 72 seconds and 24 hours. When you look at a star map showing the location of Wow!'s origin, you see two little line segments, one from where each horn was recording at the time.

These little dashes are in a part of the sky where there's nothing of much interest. No close stars, no other radio sources, just... well, space. There's nothing obvious there to listen for, but nevertheless, astronomers have on many, many occasions pointed telescopes at Wow!'s origin, hoping to hear it again; but nobody ever has ever heard even the slightest blip. Whatever Wow! was, it was transient. Try as we might, we've never been able to find it again, in over 100 different attempts.

Another question to which we might want to know the answer is what was interesting about the Wow! signal. Obviously there are many different types of radio signals bouncing around space all the time, so how do we know that there was anything special or unusual about this one? The solution to this lies in the signal's frequency. To understand why the Wow! frequency was noteworthy, we have to know a little about the cosmic radio environment.

There are different kinds of noise in different parts of the radio spectrum. Throughout the radio spectrum, there is a background level of about 3 Kelvins representing the leftover noise from the Big Bang. So that 3 Kelvin level is the quietest window we might hope to find. Below about 1 GHz, there's a lot of galactic noise, making it hard for an artificial signal to compete. And above about 10 GHz, something called quantum noise — in a nutshell, the uncertainty of photonic measurements — becomes too great to listen through. So we have a relatively quiet window between 1 and 10 GHz.

Not only is there noise at different frequencies, but planetary atmospheres like Earth's block out a lot of different chunks of the spectrum; absorbing some of it, and reflecting others. There are two great windows through which our atmosphere is more or less transparent to electromagnetic radiation. First is the visible spectrum, which is why our eyes evolved to see at the frequencies they do. Second is, coincidentally, that very same 1 to 10 GHz gap.

So, if you're an intelligent alien, and you want to attract the attention of another intelligent alien, you're going to try to do it on a frequency which, for one, is likely to be heard; and for another, is likely to be easily identifiable as artificial. So you're probably going to want to send your signal on a frequency that makes it through an atmosphere, and where there's a minimum of competing background noise, and — for extra measure — is right near the most universally recognized frequency of all: that of hydrogen, the universe's most abundant element.

Interstellar hydrogen precesses at 1.42 GHz. Precession can be thought of as the way a proton wobbles as it spins. The unfathomably massive quantities of interstellar hydrogen out there means that all that precession can actually be heard by sensitive radio receivers tuned to 1.42 GHz. Nearby on the spectrum is the frequency of interstellar hydroxyl, precessing at 1.66 GHz. We can see these two spikes when we look at the signal received by a radio transmitter pointed at any quiet region of space; in fact, any radio telescope anywhere in the galaxy will see exactly the same thing.

Astronomers call this frequency band the waterhole, for two very good reasons. First, hydrogen and hydroxyl are the disassociation products of water, the best environment for life. Second, these signposts are universal, and would be recognized by any civilization anywhere; and so, like the watercooler at the office that draws a crowd, the waterhole is nature's gathering point on the radio spectrum, a blatantly obvious place for interstellar communities to meet and greet.

The Wow! signal was squarely in the middle of the waterhole, at 1.42 GHz. It was the perfect storm of intelligent interstellar radio signals. If we ever do receive a deliberate alien transmission, Wow! was exactly what we'd hope and expect to find.

Wow! has tantalized by evading almost every suggestion put forth to explain it. For one reason, that frequency range is protected; nobody on Earth is allowed to transmit on that frequency. We know the signal did not come from an aircraft or spacecraft passing overhead, because the signal was consistent with a point in the sky that was not moving. No known planets or asteroids were in a position that they could have reflected the signal toward Earth. Any space debris would have had to be absolutely still in space relative to the Big Ear, which is unlikely, and not tumbling, which is also unlikely. Even complicated astronomical effects like gravitational lensing and interstellar scintillation (basically twinkling like that which we observe stars doing visually) have technical reasons that make them very poor candidates to explain Wow!

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A radio transmission from a point in space in the direction of Sagittarius still remains the best technical explanation for Wow! Jerry Ehman, the astronomer who found the signal, has written that he chooses not to draw "vast conclusions from half-vast data".

In conclusion, yes, an alien intelligence is still a candidate explanation for the Wow! signal. But there's no evidence for this. A stronger candidate is the significantly more vague explanation of an interstellar radio source of unknown origin.

Meanwhile, Jerry Ehman's famous scrap of printout with his famous handwriting rests in the archives of the Ohio Historical Society. In these days of manufactured mysteries and sensationalized nonsense, Wow! remains the genuine article: a true mystery, with potential implications unlike anything else in history. It's quite possibly one of the most exciting unsolved mysteries that we have, and it lies quietly in the North American Astrophysical Observatory Records, with call number MSS 1151. Someday, someone will probably solve it. That's a treasure hunt worth waiting for.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Alexander, A. "The Quest for the "WOW!": one man's search for SETI's most promising signal." Guest Blogs. The Planetary Society, 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/amir-alexander/20120127.html>

Andersen, R. "The 'Wow!' Signal: One Man's Search for SETI's Most Tantalizing Trace of Alien Life." The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/the-wow-signal-one-mans-search-for-setis-most-tantalizing-trace-of-alien-life/253093/>

Condon, J., Ranson, S. "Introduction to Radio Astronomy." Essential Radio Astronomy. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 13 Mar. 2007. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. <http://www.cv.nrao.edu/course/astr534/Introradastro.html>

Ehman, J. "The Big Ear Wow! Signal: What We Know and Don't Know About It After 20 Years." Big Ear Radio Observatory. Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory, 1 Sep. 1997. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://www.bigear.org/wow20th.htm>

SETI League. "What Is the Water-Hole?" SETI League: General Information. The SETI League, Inc., 4 Jan. 2003. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.setileague.org/general/waterhol.htm>

Wood, L. "WOW!" Ohio Historical Society Collections Blog. Ohio Historical Society, 3 Jul. 2010. Web. 16 Dec. 2012. <http://ohiohistory.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/wow/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Was the Wow! Signal Alien?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 25 Dec 2012. Web. 28 Aug 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4342>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 133 comments

"why would aliens send out a signal, in an english word, with the english alphabet, 'wow'?"

They didn't signal wow. Wow was scribbled in the margin when the researcher noticed that a signal was recorded that fit exactly what they were looking for.

It very easy could have gone down as the GEEZ LOUISE Signal or WTF Signal.

Another Nick, Alexandria VA
October 31, 2014 11:03am

Just a thought, there is a star in the Sagittarius system called Ross 154,this star is very small and cannot be seen by the human eye but is only 9.7 light years away. Although the star is not in the exact position for the signal. It is a Red Dwarf Flare star, i.e. it emits a large solar flare every two day approx. and has very erratic orbital movements through the galaxy, spins very fast and in 150,000 years it will only be 6.4 light years from Earth.
Could a flare from this star cause the signal?

Redginga, London
November 10, 2014 5:49am

it would be unscientific to say yes it was definitely a signal from out and beyond.But at face value,thats what it appears to be.Someone was trying to get someones attention

godscountry, Palm Coast Florida
December 24, 2014 1:03pm

I just discovered a Wow! signal here in the comment section... Sriva from Melbourne, I'm speechless after reading your comment. I won't say anything else... just Wow!

Ali, Los Angeles, CA
January 11, 2015 3:07pm

It amazes my that there was only the paper recording of the signal strength readout. If the signal was recorded, say the audio of it from the receiver
you could find out a lot more about it, like doppler shift, any information on the signal (sidebands) - what a pitty..

Also couldn't a rf source on the ground reflect off GEO STATIONARY
space junk?

Tony

Tony, UK
February 15, 2015 9:09am

August 16. 1977. People, google for PanAdria case,in former Yugoslavia. Really strong piece of evidence for UFO encounter . Journalist Giulliano Marinkovic wrote about this.

ja, Croatia
February 17, 2015 11:39pm

Tony from UK: You have to remember this was in 1977, almost 40 years ago. We had no home video recorders, CD players, USB sticks, hard drives with gigabytes on them, etc. It would have required huge amounts of magnetic tape to keep records for any length of time. Image using cassette tapes to record a signal 24 hours a day, every day. Even if you used 1 hour tapes that would be 24 tapes a day, 168 per week, about 720 per month and 8760 per year. And those tapes would have been expensive back then too! Each cassette would have to be labelled (probably by hand) and then securely stored. They would have thought that a paper record was the best option at the time (cost, ease of use, physical space required to store, etc.)

CJ Dennis, Melbourne
May 14, 2015 7:01am

@DanR "we appear to be the only planet in the Goldilocks zone"
Remember, a planet doesn't necessarily have to be in one for life to form on it, just life as we know it, something truly exotic such as non-carbon based life might exist on planets outside of the Goldilocks zone.

Ves, Ohio
May 14, 2015 6:19pm

I am going back to my argument of a "Hoaxter" for the origin of the "Wow!" signal...

These are the facts that we know:
1) The signal strength of the signal indicated on the printout is exactly what we would expect from a "point source" well outside the solar system.
2) The signal's RF frequency is what scientists on Earth postulate an extra-terrestrial intelligece would utilize.
3) Only "half" the antenna received the signal, but it is unknown which half of the antenna saw it, so it is uncertain which two swaths of sky was the source of the signal.
4) Based on the comments above, it should be clarified that it is not known if any information was imbedded in the signal. The only thing documented (on paper) was the signal strength. It's akin to turning down the volume all the way on an old AM radio and tuning-in a station with an S-meter. You know a signal is there, since you see the needle pegging, but since you turned down the volume, you're not "hearing" the information being transmitted.
5) The signal has not been detected since, nor, to my knowledge, a similar signal elsewhere in the sky?

I'm not an electrical engineer. I don't know what the block diagram of that particular radio teelscope was. But, how do we know that a signal wasn't INTENTIONALLY injected somewhere INSIDE the system, between the actual antenna element and the receiver? Why has nobody proposed this solution? I know it's calling into question a science team's ethics, but how do we know??

RC, Wayne, NJ
July 2, 2015 8:00am

"recognized by any civilization anywhere"... you meant any SUFFICIENTLY ADVANCED civilisation, obviously.

Another obvious one- IF this signal was deliberate then it wold have been repeated many times, as have our search signals. That it was a solitary 'signal' means it wasn't intentional- either a hoax or some natural explanation.

JIMJFOX, LONDON
August 4, 2015 10:40am

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