The WOW Signal: Alien Contact?

Based at the university of Ohio, the Big Ear radio telescope began searching the skies for ‘radio waves’ which could indicate signs of intelligent alien life since 1973 In 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was analysing the latest printed data generated by the Big Ear radio telescope, when he came across an alphanumeric sequence just 6 characters long that would mystify scientists for decades to come

This unique sequence depicted a strong and focussed signal that originated from deep space It fit all the expectations of an intelligent extraterrestrial signal So shocked by what the telescope had detected, Ehman circled the sequence and wrote ‘Wow!’, inadvertently christening the most compelling evidence for intelligent alien life to date The ‘wow signal’ was heard on only one of the observatory’s fifty channels, suggesting that it wasn’t from a natural source Furthermore the signal was transmitted on a frequency which Earth radios are forbidden to transmit, closely matching the hydrogen line

As hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it is hypothesised that aliens would choose to use that frequency, in order to transmit a strong signal for communication But despite the ‘wow signal’ having all of the hallmarks of an alien transmission, it was never heard again Although he discovered the ‘wow signal’, Ehman resists ”drawing vast conclusions from half-vast data”, acknowledging the possibility that the source may have been military or otherwise a product of humans, such as reflections of signals from Earth off asteroids or satellites, rather than a communication attempt by an alien civilisation If the ‘wow signal’ was an attempt by aliens to try to contact us, it would be expected that the aliens would have kept repeating their message until they received a response But, since 1977 more than 100 follow-up studies, using increasingly advanced technology, have only ever heard silence

Even more puzzling is that the ‘wow signal’ is thought to have originated in the constellation Sagittarius, in an area of space with no known stars or planets Nevertheless, the ‘wow signal’ remains a tantalising mystery for astronomers Recent estimates suggest there could be anywhere between two and 50,000 civilisations existing in the universe Our universe is approximately 138 billion years old and recent data from NASA’s Kepler space observatory estimates there are 40 billion habitable Earth-sized planets in our galaxy alone

There are over 80 billion other galaxies in the observable universe Yet despite the seeming impossible odds that the existence of life is limited to Earth, there have been no confirmed signs of extraterrestrial intelligence This raises the question, ”Where is everybody?” This is known as the Fermi paradox Various theories have arisen to explain why we are yet to have solid proof of intelligent alien life Advanced extraterrestrial civilisations could exist too far away for us to detect them, or could have already become extinct

Or it may be possible that they are avoiding humanity in order to avoid conflict Meanwhile, The Rare Earth hypothesis argues that whilst Earth-like planets may be common, complex life is in fact unique to Earth Even if simple life has arisen elsewhere, the random combination of astrophysical and geological events that led to intelligent life on our planet may not have necessarily been replicated elsewhere in the universe Until solid evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life is found, the ‘wow signal’ remains a feeble companion in the big universe In 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico finally beamed a response from humanity, in the direction in which the signal originated

Containing 10,000 Twitter messages, scientist have no option but to patiently wait for a response, whilst the question of whether there is intelligent life outside Earth remains unanswered

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