On August 15th, 1977, astronomers using the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University detected a 72-second radio signal coming from space. This powerful signal, which quickly earned the nickname the “Wow! signal”, appeared to be coming from the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation, and some went so far as to suggest that it might be extra-terrestrial in origin.
Since then, the Wow! signal has been an ongoing source of controversy among SETI researchers and astronomers. While some have maintained that it is evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI), others have sought to find a natural explanation for it. And thanks a team of researchers from the Center of Planetary Science (CPS), a natural explanation may finally have been found.
In the past, possible explanations have ranged from asteroids and exoplanets to stars and even signals from Earth – but these have all been ruled out. And then in 2016, the Center for Planetary Science – a Florida-based non-profit scientific and astronomical organization – proposed a hypothesis arguing that a comet and/or its hydrogen cloud could be the cause.
This was based on the fact that the Wow! signal was transmitting at a frequency of 1,420 MHz, which happens to be the same frequency as hydrogen. This explanation was also appealing because the movement of the comet served as a possible explanation for why the signal has not been detected since. To validate this hypothesis, the CPS team reportedly conducted 200 observations using a 10-meter radio telescope.
This telescope, they claim, was equipped with a spectrometer and a custom feed horn designed to collect a radio signal centered at 1420.25 MHz. Between Nov. 27th, 2016, and Feb. 24th, 2017, they monitored the area of space where the Wow! signal was detected, and found that a pair of Solar comets (which had not been discovered in 1977) happened to conform to their observations, and could therefore have been the source.
Spectra obtained from these comets – P/2008 Y2(Gibbs) and 266/P Christensen – indicated that they were emitting a radio frequency that was consistent with the Wow! signal. As Antonio Paris (a professor at the CPS), described in a recent paper that appeared in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences:
“The investigation discovered that comet 266/P Christensen emitted a radio signal at 1420.25 MHz. All radio emissions detected were within 1° (60 arcminutes) of the known celestial coordinates of the comet as it transited the neighborhood of the ‘Wow!’ Signal. During observations of the comet, a series of experiments determined that known celestial sources at 1420 MHz (i.e., pulsars and/or active galactic nuclei) were not within 15° of comet 266/P Christensen.”
The team also examined three other comets to see if they emitted similar radio signals. These comets – P/2013 EW90 (Tenagra), P/2016 J1-A (PANSTARRS), and 237P/LINEAR – were selected randomly from the JPL Small Bodies database, and were confirmed to emit a radio signal at 1420 MHz. Therefore, the results of this investigation conclude that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a Solar System body.
However, not everyone is convinced. In response to the paper, Yvette Cendes – a PhD student with the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto – wrote a lengthy response on reddit as to why it fails to properly address the Wow! signal. For starters, she cites how the research team measured the signal strength in terms of decibels:
“I have never, ever, EVER used dB in a paper, nor have I ever read a paper in radio astronomy that measured signal strength in dB (except perhaps in the context of an instrumentation paper describing the systems of a radio telescope, i.e. not science but engineering.) We use a different unit in astronomy for flux density, the Jansky (Jy), where 1 Jy= ?230 dBm/(m2·Hz). (dB is a log scale, and Janskys are not.)”
Another point of criticism is the lack of detail in the paper, which would make reproducing the results very difficult – a central requirement where scientific research is concerned. Specifically, they do not indicate where the 10-meter radio telescope they used came from – i.e. which observatory of facility it belonged to, or even if it belonged to one at all – and are rather vague about its technical specification.
Last, but not least, there is the matter of the environment in which the observations took place, which are not specified. This is also very important for radio astronomy, as it raised the issue of interference. As Cendes put it:
“This might sound pedantic, but this is insanely important in radio astronomy, where most signals we ever search for are a tiny fraction of the man-made ones, which can be millions of times brighter than an astronomical signal. (A cell phone on the moon would be one of the brighter radio astronomy sources in the sky, to give you an idea!) Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) is super important for the field, so much that people can spend their careers on it (I’ve written a chapter on my thesis on this myself), and the “radio environment” of an observatory can be worth a paper in itself.”
Beyond these apparent incongruities, Cendes also states that the hypothesis for the experiment was flawed. Essentially, the Big Ear searched for the same signal for a period of 22 years, but found nothing. If the comet hypothesis held true, there should be an explanation as to why no trace of the signal was found until this time. Alas, one is lacking, as far as this most recent study is concerned.
“And now you likely have an idea on why one-off events are so hard to prove in science,” she claims. “But then, this is really the major reason the Wow! signal is unsolved to this day- without a plausible explanation, [without] additional data, we just will never know.”
Though it may be hard to accept, it is entirely possible that we may never know what the Wow! signal truly was – whether it was a one-off event, a naturally-occurring phenomena, or something else entirely. And if the comet hypothesis should prove to be unverifiable, then that is certainly good news for the SETI enthusiasts!
While the elimination of natural explanations doesn’t prove that things like Wow! signal are proof of alien civilizations, it at least indicates that this possibility cannot be ruled out just yet. And for those hopeful that evidence of intelligent life will be someday found, that’s really the best we can hope for… for now!