ᵀᴴᴱ WOW! SIGNAL

(Animation from GIPHY.com)

Every so often, usually in a quiet, fleeting moment, we find our gaze drawn to the night sky to take in the visual cornucopia of twinkling lights that adorn the empyrean. As we try to fathom the vastness of what it is we’re looking at, a question is often ignited in our imagination. “Is anyone else out there, somewhere in the vastness of space?” An answer many of us would go to great lengths to find. What we wouldn’t give for a sign, just one single sign. A single lone, dim beacon, flickering in the darkness of the void, would present and solidify a concept to us, that would change our lives and our world forever, “we are not alone”.

Well, it’s entirely possible that the fabled sign you’ve long hoped and waited for, actually already happened. In fact at the time of writing this text, records of the “sign” could have been sitting dormant now for approximately 42 years.

Enter the Big Ear. Not literally, that’s the name of a radio telescope at the Ohio State University. One of its primary uses at the time was to listen for the sign many of us spend our lives longing to hear, an indication of intelligent life in space. On the 15th of August, 1977, a relatively strong narrowband radio signal was received from space, from the direction of the Sagittarius constellation. The signal was considered such an anomaly, that upon its discovery Astronomer Jerry R. Ehman circled the signal and wrote next to it “Wow!”, hence coining the unusual signal’s nickname. The signal sequence lasted a total of 72 seconds, essentially indicating a possible continuous signal source/transmission (72 seconds, the maximum recorded length due to the rotation of the earth). But what was this interstellar message?

“6EQUJ5”

In actuality, the signal recorded isn’t thought to have been carrying a message, the code ‘6EQUJ5’ is more a representation of the 72 second long, unmodulated, continuous burst of radio energy. The strange thing about the Wow! Signal is that it ticks quite a few of the boxes set out as requirements to indicate a possible extraterrestrial broadcast by the Ohio State University at the time of the observation. While many have argued over the origin of the source of the signal, some even suggesting it erroneously began on Earth, a definitive answer has yet to be discovered.

For decades, more advanced radio telescopes have searched to rediscover the Wow! Signal to no avail. Even attempts at homing in on the Sagittarius Constellation have all proven unsuccessful. Not only unsuccessful, but no similar signal has ever been discovered. Leading many to believe that the signal could have been the byproduct of a passing comet, surrounded in hydrogen emitting the same frequency of that which was discovered. Maybe the distance and positioning was incorrect. A myriad of mistakes that resulted in a reading that is otherwise false, or misleading.

But if however, the signal was not some mistake, not some naturally emitted frequency of hydrogen at 1420MHz but instead an actual signal created by some highly advanced extraterrestrial race, then over 220 million light years away, in the Sagittarius Constellation, a signal was once transmitted. For who or what reason? It may never be known. Some estimations have localized the signal to a star called Tau Sagittarii.

Maybe there is or was intelligent life there, maybe they still are? Perhaps a reconnaissance drone was drifting through the vastness of space, emitting a frequency that traveled light years in all directions. Maybe Earth’s “Big Ear” only heard a very small fraction of a message. Or Maybe the entire event is just a very ordinary event, being taken vastly out of context.

Regardless, to this day, the Wow! Signal is considered to be one of the strongest events recorded, to indicate the possibility that we are not alone in the universe.

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