Was the Wow! Signal Alien?

via Skeptoid

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.

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

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

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.

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