Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mysterious ‘Wow!’ Signal Finally Explained?

Drawing attention to the mysterious transmission on a printout, Ehman circled the signal and jotted down 'Wow!' next to it. Since then, it's become one of the most well-know space signals ever received. Credit: OSU/NAAPO

It has puzzled astronomers and fueled the enthusiasm of alien hunters for nearly 40 years, but the mystery of the famous 'Wow!' signal could soon be solved by a new experiment. The so-called 'Wow!' signal is the name given to a powerful blast of radio waves which was recorded by astronomer Jerry R. Ehman in August 1977. While monitoring data from Ohio State University's 'Big Ear' radio telescope, Ehman came across an exceptionally strong radio signal, which lasted solidly for 72 seconds.

Drawing attention to the mysterious transmission on a printout, Ehman circled the signal and jotted down 'Wow!' next to it. Since then, it's become one of the most well-know space signals ever received.

The 'Wow!' signal has never been heard since, and its origins are still unknown. It appears to have come from an area near the M55 star cluster in the Sagittarius constellation, and some alien enthusiasts believe its strength and clarity mean it came from another intelligent species.

However, this kind of theory is exactly what Professor Antonio Paris, from Florida's St. Petersburg College, is trying to disprove.

In a previous job, Paris was an analyst for the US Department of Defense, and he's hoping to use this investigative background to dig into the true origins of the signal.

“I have this investigative background, so I approached the ‘Wow!’ signal as I’m going back to the crime scene,” Paris told the Guardian. “It’s a cold case, so I went to various [astronomical] databases to find culprits or suspects that were at this crime scene at the time.”

He didn’t find aliens but he did find two suspicious looking comets.

Known as 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, they have never been investigated before because they were only discovered in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Paris found that they were both in the vicinity of Chi Sagittarii on the day that the ‘Wow!’ signal was detected.

This could be significant because comets are surrounded by clouds of hydrogen gas that are millions of kilometers in diameter. The ‘Wow!’ signal itself was detected by Ehman at 1420MHz, which is a radio frequency that hydrogen naturally emits. He published his idea at the beginning of this year.

But before the case can be closed, Paris must test his hypothesis and for this he needs public support.

Comet 266P/Christensen will pass the Chi Sagittarii star group again on 25 January 2017, while 335P/Gibbs will make its passage on 7 January 2018. Paris plans to observe these events to look for a recurrence of the mystery signal. But time is not on his side for using an existing radio telescope – they are all booked out.

So, he has launched a crowdfunding campaign on gofundme to raise the $13,000 he needs to buy a radio telescope to make the observation. Donations are rolling in and he is already most of the way to his target.

“I would like to [be fully funded] in May, order the stuff so that I can have it by October,” he said. This would give him time to construct the dish, test it and prepare for the January encounter.

Although some other astronomers have voiced skepticism at his hypothesis, Paris points out that even if he turns out to be wrong, it’s still good science because we are learning something about comets, and he and his colleagues have a new radio telescope that they can use for further research.

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