The “Wow!” signal has puzzled scientists for almost 40 years as to what could have produced such a strong signal from space, and now a research team from the Center of Planetary Science is certain that they have the answer: It was a comet.
As reported by Phys.org, the team of researchers, led by Antonio Paris, have offered up a theory that a comet that was yet to be discovered was the source of the high-frequency blast that astronomers at Ohio State University’s “Big Ear” telescope detected way back in 1977. When the data was studied, the astronomer, Jerry Ehman, was so surprised about his find that he wrote “Wow!” in red ink in the margin of the data sheet, at the same time unknowingly bestowing the name for which the signal — which was never repeated — would be forever known.
Over the years, various explanations for the Wow! signal’s origin have been posited, including that it was emitted by a star, an asteroid, exoplanets, and even from the Earth itself. Some of the more skeptical believed that it was most likely produced by the telescope and/or its attendant equipment or another man-made source. The more imaginative immediately wondered if the signal had come from advanced aliens trying to, for whatever reason, contact Earth.
The Center of Planetary Science (CPS) researchers shot all those ideas down, including that an alien intelligence transmitted the message when they began to concentrate on the hypothesis, also formulated by a CPS team, that posited that the Wow! signal may have been produced by a hydrogen cloud accompanying a comet.
Oddly enough, the Wow! signal was emitted, or transmitted, at 1,420 MHz, which is the same frequency as hydrogen.
Adding strength to the idea was that the comet’s movement would have explained why there was never a repeat of the famous signal.
Taking information of known comets that were undiscovered back in 1977, the CPS team narrowed their search down to two candidates — P/2008 Y2(Gibbs) and 266/P Christensen — that were in the same area of sky as where the Wow! signal appeared to originate. The team tested their hypothesis against further observations done on the two comets when they traversed the sky from November 2016 through February of 2017.
From Phys.org: “The team reports that radio signals from 266/P Christensen matched those from the Wow! signal 40 years ago. To verify their results, they tested readings from three other comets, as well, and found similar results.
“The researchers acknowledge that they cannot say with certainty that the Wow! signal was generated by 266/P Christensen, but they can say with relative assurance that it was generated by a comet.”
Just last month, in a Forbes article on the upcoming 40th anniversary of the discovery of the signal, it was reported that a paper, published by the Washington Academy of Sciences in 2015, suggested that comets P/2008 Y2(Gibbs) and 266/P Christensen “were transiting in the neighborhood of the Chi Sagittarii star group” and that the two comets had hydrogen clouds around their nuclei. The paper went on to suggest that the hydrogen clouds could be the source of the Wow! signal.
To make matters more interesting, Dorminey contended in the Forbes article that scientists have still not discounted that the Wow! signal originated with aliens. Pointing to the findings in the Washington Academy of Sciences paper, he argued that a signal along the hydrogen emission line from the comets would likely have been picked up within the last five decades. This, he said, has not happened.
So, the question is now, are the findings by the CPS researchers, also published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, definitive? In the paper, the team concludes: “The results of this investigation, therefore, conclude that cometary spectra are detectable at 1420 MHz and, more importantly, that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a Solar System body.”
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