Weird Alien Communication: The WOW! Signal

The WOW! Signal.  (Fortunately for history, it wasn’t me that detected this, otherwise it would be the “Holy Balls!” Signal)

"Holy 6EQUJ5, this is a message from extraterrestrial aliens!"

Probably the closest we’ve ever come to receiving an actual signal from an alien intelligence, the “Wow!” signal was a very brief, very suspicious radio signal that was picked up by a radio telescope back in 1977.  Why was it so wow-esque?  For one thing, it was strong — really strong, over 30 times stronger in intensity than the background noise level of deep space.  For another, it happened to sit right at a radio frequency that SETI researchers picked as the obvious place to do interstellar communication in the electromagnetic spectrum (1420 MHz, a relatively quiet patch of the EM spectrum).  It was so unusual and compelling that the attending astronomer at the time (Jerry Ehman) wrote the word “Wow!” in pencil right next to the signal printout, in an image that is now famous among SETI aficionados.

They only saw the damn thing once — that one time in 1977, when the radio telescope “Big Ear” happened to sweep that portion of the sky (a spot near the constellation Sagittarius).  (Which is such a Sagittarius kind of thing to happen).  (I presume.  I don’t follow astrology.)  Big Ear itself couldn’t stay locked on that spot to keep listening, as it’s fixed to the ground and uses the motion of the earth to sweep across the sky.  But they looked again the next chance they got with Big Ear and plenty of other telescopes, and in all cases we have seen… a big fat nothing.

Nevertheless, we’ve decided to answer.  On the 35th anniversary, we beamed a message back at them (whoever they are), consisting of … ahem…  Twitter messages.  Every tweet with the hashtag #ChasingUFOs from one day back in 2012 got wrapped up into a package that was beamed straight back at the spot in the sky that Wow! seemed to come from.  Including my favorite from Stephen Colbert:

“I am Stephen Colbert and I come to you with an important message on behalf of all the peoples of the Earth.  We are not delicious. In fact, we’re kind of gamey, and we get stuck in your teeth. It’s really embarrassing at a job interview. If you want something good to munch on, go to the nearby Crab nebula. And bring a bib. Seriously, all you can eat.”

I’m extremely disappointed that I missed this.   Fortunately, there are plenty of other smartasses out there to pick up my slack — my favorite among the many tweets sent is this one, from @JC_Christian:

“Aliens, Glenn Beck asked me to tell you he really likes the probings, but please wear donkey costumes next time #ChasingUFOs”  — @JC_Christian

So what the hell was the Wow! signal?  A real, honest-to-goodness artificial beacon from an alien intelligence, that unfortunately (for us) only transmits every few millennia to save on the power bill?  An intergalactic “Babba Booey!!!”?  An alien leaning on a control panel lever they shouldn’t have?  We simply have no idea.  It sure looked suspicious (in fact I’d venture to say it looked as compelling as it possibly could be without crossing over the line into “obviously artificial”), but without any replication of the signal, we’ll just never know.  I’m sure at this point those involved would be happy even with a concrete proof that it wasn’t alien intelligence — anything to finally put this issue to rest.  But until we either get another message, or figure out how this one could have been a glitch, we’re left wondering what the hell that was.

I can’t do any better than to quote the man himself, Jerry Ehman:

“I must state that the origin of the Wow! signal is still an open question for me. 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”.


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