Monday, January 25, 2016

“Wow!” Signal: A new potential explanation and my journey through history before the mystery is (possibly) lifted

Photo BigEar.org
On August 15, 1977 at 11:16 PM eastern daylight savings time the Ohio State University Radio Observatory (OSURO), or affectionately called the “Big Ear” radio telescope in Delaware, Ohio, recorded what is now known as the “Wow!” signal. At the time the signal came in no one was at the facility. A few days later (possibly August 19th) Jerry R. Ehman was reviewing printouts that were delivered to him at his home from Gene Mikesell, a technician who was in charge of taking care of the IBM computer that was doing all the work at the site. Every 3 to 4 days Gene would stop, reset, and then restart the computer due to its limited amount of room for data and then bring the stack of printouts to Ehman to look through. The men were part of a volunteer effort to detect narrow band signals that could possibly be sent from an extraterrestrial source known as the SETI project, short for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which uses various satellites to search for signals in space. Ehman and others involved in the project had formerly worked at the radio telescope until the National Science Foundation suddenly shut off funding in August of 1972. In December of 1973 until 1995 the radio telescope was used for the volunteer effort of the SETI project after it had completed a radio survey of the Andromeda Galaxy in 1963 and the Ohio Sky Survey between 1965 and 1971.

Color copy of the signal with a note from Jerry Ehman on December 18, 1999
on display at Perkins Observatory in Delaware, Ohio. (click to enlarge)
As Jerry sat and reviewed the printouts he suddenly saw the data from a few days prior. In a vertical column with the alphanumerical sequence “6EQUJ5”, that represents 72 seconds worth of information gathered from the radio telescope, he circled the data and wrote “Wow!” in the margin. The alphanumeric code essentially describes the intensity variation of the signal and it has been given two different values for its frequency within the 1420 Megahertz range which puts it in the hydrogen line frequency. What does this mean for searching for extraterrestrials? SETI believed that since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe extraterrestrials might use that frequency to transmit a strong signal. The problem is researchers have been unable to find the signal from the original source of the constellation Sagittarius, near the Chi Sagittarii star group.

John Kraus, Bob Dixon, Ehman, and others poured over the data and attempted to find a cause. All terrestrial causes were ruled out, in the words of Ehman ruled out means “to assign a very low probability to.” The researchers also considered other celestial explanations, but nothing could satisfactorily explain the data. Unfortunately, the data was limited due to the technology and software used, and since it was never repeated does not offer any additional help to ever be solved.

In 2016 a new hypothesis was presented after nearly 40 years of a lack of a definitive answer. Antonio Paris, a professor of astronomy at St Petersburg College in Florida, and Evan Davies proposed that the signal actually originated from one of two comets that were flying by at the time. Many researchers feel that since the signal has not been observed again from the same origin that it must have been something passing through the area between the observation point and the intended target of the Sagittarius constellation. James Bauer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is skeptical of this hypothesis since the comet would have to release a significant amount of hydrogen to produce such a signal. Paris states that in order to rule out the comets his hypothesis needs to be tested. Comet 266P/Christensen will be back in that region on January 25, 2017, and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) on January 7, 2018. By studying their radio emission and how quickly they move in the sky, astronomers should be able to tell if it really was this that produced the “Wow!” signal.

Some may think that Antonio Paris is just here to ruin the longstanding belief that this is a piece of leading evidence in the support of life outside of the Earth. Paris is the founder and director of the Aerial Phenomena Investigation team that is a worldwide effort to actively research and investigate UFO claims. His goal is not to discredit Ehman, but to hopefully provide answers that have plagued this code for so long.
The computer that captured the "Wow!" signal in 1977
on display at Perkins Observatory in Delaware, Ohio

Ehman wrote a follow-up article to the “Wow!” signal in 1997 and again in 2007 where he discussed many details surrounding how the signal was obtained and what work was done to determine its origin. While Ehman was working with SETI to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence he was not so quick to assume the signal was from an extraterrestrial race. While many terrestrial explanations were essentially ruled out he still does not hold a strong opinion on what could have caused the signal. He also warns against anyone making assumptions about the work by those who do not fully understand the equipment and software that was used to obtain the data. In his article Ehman states, “There is simply too little data to draw many conclusions. In other words, as I stated above, I choose not to ‘draw vast conclusions from 'half-vast' data’.”

The “Big Ear” observatory was built from 1956 to 1961 and was first turned on in 1963. The concrete structure was built on the grounds near the Perkins Observatory that was built starting in 1923 and was not completed until 1931 when the 69 inch mirror was finally installed for the telescope. The “Big Ear” was last used in 1997. While the Perkins Observatory still stands the Ohio State University Radio Observatory was demolished in 1998 due to a variety of circumstances as the land was sold to developers. The area where this historic signal was detected is now part of a golf course. An Ohio historical marker stands near the entrance to the golf course on highway 23 known as Columbus Pike just south of downtown Delaware, Ohio.

Pieces of the reflector screen of the "Big Ear" radio telescope
on display at Perkins Observatory
After reading about the new information potentially writing off the “Wow!” signal I became more interested than ever to visit this site before the mystery may potentially be erased. I had learned of the “Wow!” signal early in my study of UFO material and was excited that this took place in my home state of Ohio. I also knew the facility had been removed, but I had no idea if anything about the find still existed. On a January 22, 2016, I visited the Perkins Observatory for a “cloudy night” presentation. Through the old telescopes and other antiques, the displays of meteor fragments, the explanations of various astronomical events and heavenly bodies, the outdated computers, and dusty pictures of rockets and manned vehicles going to space in a forgotten generation I stumbled upon a room that made my eyes light up. I walked into a room with a sign above it called “E.T. Radio” which is located next to the gift shop in the north wing (to the left) just off the center of the Perkins Observatory. Hidden in the corner are the only remaining pieces of the “Big Ear” observatory that look like scrap metal. The big thing that immediately attracted me was the original computer system that took the data for the “Wow!” signal. There is a whole wall explaining the basics of the signal. There is also a color copy on the wall of the original printout that contains the signal data which has a short explanation from Jerry Ehman written in cursive in pen in the margin on December 18, 1999, “After more than 22 years we still do not have a definitive explanation of this signal. Although we are able to rule out many suggested explanations, the possibility of this signal coming from an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization cannot be ruled out.” The original printout is preserved by the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society) based at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Exterior of the Perkins Observatory on the night of my visit
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