- Education and Science
The SETI Wow! Signal: Evidence of Alien Contact?
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
The Wow! Signal recorded in 1977 by SETI researcher Dr. Jerry Ehman opens the door to the possibility that an alien civilization may have attempted to contact Earth. The signal has never occurred again, and some believe it was just an anomalous reading caused by noise in the nearby solar system, a distant star or even interference here on Earth.
But others think the Wow! Signal may have been our one chance to make contact with alien life, and we simply hadn’t the technology or sophistication to recognize it. Is it really possible there are alien civilizations out there?
SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the name for the collective work underway by researchers and scientists worldwide who are asking exactly that question. SETI researchers are spread out around the world, incorporating academic institutions, private facilities and individual researchers.
Using state-of–the-art telescopes and listening devices, they observe the sky for anything that might give us a sign that there is somebody in the galaxy besides us. For decades SETI researchers have looked, listened and hoped, waiting for that big breakthrough.
SETI is an incredible project with the potential to yield the greatest discoveries in the history of mankind. Contact with an alien civilization would surely change our world and our lives forever. Unfortunately, to date there has been little reason to celebrate.
The universe is vast, and full of bizarre sounds, but none of what we are really looking for. Despite the unwavering optimism and devotion of SETI personnel, we have yet to receive the cosmic hail from a far-off star system, inviting to us to our seat in the Galactic Federation Counsel.
Or have we?
The Wow! Signal
Despite the endless silence observed by SETI researchers, on clear nights, whenever we turn our eyes to the stars above, it's hard not to think about what could be out there. Or, more exactly, who could be out there. It’s easy to wonder if life exists on other worlds, and if there are other beings like us somewhere, pondering the same question.
In such a vast galaxy with so many billions of stars,it seems very unlikely we'd be alone. But if they are out there, how do we find them? The Milky Way alone is so huge that alien civilizations could exist relatively nearby and we'd never even know about them. And why hasn't SETI heard anything yet?
If it wasn’t for one fascinating incident back in 1977 the whole thing would be far too depressing. On August 15th of that year, Dr. Jerry Ehman was manning the Big Ear Radio Telescope owned by Ohio State University when he spotted a most peculiar anomaly. It appeared to be a radio wave signal, distinct from the usual background noise, coming our way from outer space and showing all the telltale signs of an interstellar communication attempt.
Ehman checked and rechecked the data, then noted the word “Wow!” beside the signal on the printout. From then on it became known as the Wow! Signal.
What Was the Wow! Signal?
What was it and where did it come from? Many scientists and researchers have attempted to recapture the Signal through the years, but none have succeeded. The Wow! Signal appeared to be a one-time occurrence. If it ever happened again, it was not detected.
Though some researchers say there are several “natural” explanations available, one doesn’t need to stretch their imagination very far to imagine another possibility. Was this an attempt at communication from an alien civilization?
If the Signal was indeed an attempt at communication, why hasn’t it happened again? Could beings from another planet have been reaching out for help, or in an effort to make peace? Were we expected to send a response? Did we miss our one chance to join the Federation?
We may never know. These are among the great mysteries of SETI history, but in truth it could have been something far more mundane. If there are other worlds out there, packed with other intelligent life, it is possible we simply caught a stray transmission intended for other aliens and indecipherable to us?
That may not be as exciting as aliens attempting to contact us, but it still means we not as alone in the universe as we've thought. That's a victory for SETI.
Stephen Hawking's Thoughts on the Wow! Signal
SETI Keeps Looking
The legacy of the Wow! Signal has left researchers equal parts amazed, hopeful and frustrated. This tiny nugget of information, scratched down on a computer printout decades ago, is the only shred of evidence that it may really be possible to make contact with an alien civilization.
Unfortunately, if SETI ever does find success with its ever-increasing array of telescopes and radio receivers, the results would have to be on a consistent level for anyone to take them seriously. As a result, the Wow! Signal is but an interesting footnote in the history of the SETI project.
SETI has had many critics over the years, as has anyone who believes the potential for alien contact is realistic. But that surely doesn't mean we should stop looking. It seems reasonable that there must be more life somewhere in the cosmos.
In fact, life elsewhere in the galaxy isn't just possible, according to some it is likely. The Drake Equation is a calculation devised in the early 1960s by astronomer Frank Drake which tells us how many intelligent civilizations there ought to be in our galaxy that are capable of communication. It takes many variables into consideration, unfortunately some of them unknowable.
However, the more we learn about our galaxy the closer we get to plugging in those numbers that might give us an accurate idea of who else is out there. A verifiable signal originating from somewhere else in the Milky Way would put an end to any conjecture.
If Alien Civilizations Exist, Where the Heck are They?
A decade before Drake, when considering the size and age of our galaxy and the near probability that if we exist so should other cultures, physicist Erico Fermi asked, “Where are they?”
This is the Fermi Paradox. Most people believe that the universe is so vast that there must be other civilizations out there. So, where are they, and why don’t we hear from them? And why does SETI work so hard for so little reward? Are we alone after all? Or, are they waiting for us to develop warp technology so they don’t violate the Prime Directive by interacting with us primitives?
Of course we don't know. So the real question is: Do you want to live in a world you believe is alone, or do you want to assume there are other planets out there like ours? As for right now, one guess is as good as another.
Was the Wow! Signal a message from another culture on some far-off planet? Or, was it simply an anomaly caused by some mundane happening? We'll likely never know. But it does provide some intriguing food for thought, and next time you look up at that starry night sky the galaxy may suddenly seem not such a lonely place.