The Wow! Signal and Our Response?

Humans have been looking up into the sky for countless centuries asking ourselves, “are we really all alone?”. The answer to this question continues to elude us, but that hasn’t stopped some scientists from searching for answers wherever they can find them.

While the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) search has turned up very little evidence since its inception several decades ago, a signal detected in 1977 left one SETI scientist nearly at a loss for words. The only thing Jerry Ehman, the scientist who discovered the signal, could write down when he discovered it was…”wow!”. Hence the name, “wow! signal”.


This mysterious radio signal was detected at the Big Ear radio telescope in Ohio with many still believing to this day that it was message sent to earth from aliens. It was detected within the exact range where physicists had theorized 18 years earlier would signify alien chatter.

Continuing the Search

Ehman, along with many other researchers, tried to find the signal again after it disappeared. In fact, Ehman continued to search for many months using the telescope at Big Ear but was unsuccessful in his efforts.

Robert Gray decided to reinvigorate search efforts in the late 1980’s, and again in the mid-1990’s. Gray, along with some of his colleagues, used a variety of increasingly advanced technologies to look for the wow! signal, or something similar, but also came up empty handed.

However, researchers did learn that it was extremely unlikely that the original signal originated on Earth, and therefore it most likely came from somewhere in deep space.

Stephen Hawking sums up the importance of scanning the skies and not believing hoaxes with his quote below:

“If aliens are here then the worlds newspapers would be full of reports of them. Also if the government is involved in a cover up then they seem to be doing a better job of it than they do of anything else”

 What Makes the Wow! Signal Special?

SETI telescopes explore the cosmos day after day, and all they usually hear is the static of deep space noise. But the wow! signal was different, it was over 30 times louder than any other transmission detected. Not only that, it contained only a single frequency of about 1420 MHz, also known as the hydrogen line.

Neutral hydrogen atoms in deep space emit a frequency of 1420 MHz, and since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, SETI scientists check this frequency regularly because they naturally assume aliens might use this simple and universal transmission to send a message.


Image Credit

The same frequency that was ultimately detected in the wow! signal is the exact frequency in which SETI researchers expected to receive an extraterrestrial message if one existed. This fact alone is enough to convince some people that the message was sent to us from aliens in deep space.

As far as SETI scientists can tell, the signal most likely originated somewhere in or around the constellation of Sagittarius, a finding that only helps to deepen the mystery.

How would they have sent it?

Making contact with aliens via radio is always going to be difficult. Messages take ages and could easily be lost in the clutter. This signal however stands out from the radio static that fills the universe. The location of the signal in the constellation Sagittarius, near the Chi Sagittarii star group.

Scientists say the signal would have required a 2.2 gigawatt transmitter, vastly more powerful than any existing terrestrial radio station. It would be over eight hundred times more powerful than the strongest radio transmitters on Earth.

It would have taken between 120 and 250 years to get here. This is travelling at the speed of light since radio waves are a form of light.

Our Response in 2012

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the wow! signal, the National Geographic Channel and Arecibo Observatory sent a response by beaming a digital package of information that contained messages from Stephen Colbert, Jorge Garcia, along with twitter posts from the general public with the hashtag #ChasingUFOs.

The response sent to deep space was encoded with repeating-sequence headers that will indicate the message came from intelligent life. The signal sent out by humans is also 20 times stronger than commercial radio signals. If the message is received by intelligent life somewhere in the Universe, they will be able to clearly identify it as being alien to them.

What did it sound like

The signal was only recorded in paper. In fact, the whole signal is “6EQUJ5”. with which one of this letters and numbers representing a pulse recorded in the single narrowband channel the signal appeared. This can be transformed into sound. Although what you can hear in this video is not very far from what you would get form the real signal. This is not the actual signal contrary to popular belief.

Possible Ramifications for Humans

Communication with alien lifeforms is completely uncharted territory for human beings. The possible consequences that could result from our message being detected by extraterrestrial intelligent life are nearly endless.

On one hand, we could contact a benevolent race that is interested in sharing and exchanging information with us. We could experience rapid advancement in technology, astronomy, physics, space travel, and other knowledge that we would find useful and beneficial here on earth.

On the other hand, we could make unwanted contact with lifeforms who might want to harm us or take our planetary resources. And the message contains everything they need to find our location and learn about our earthly ways. No matter what ends up happening, SETI scientists clearly believe it is worth the risk.

Every night, when the stars are shining, there are humans all across the world looking up and wondering, “are we really alone in this vast universe?”. It is perhaps one of the most important questions ever asked by humans, and the search for answers is taking us deeper into the cosmos than ever before. The only question now is, will we be ready for such an answer when the time comes?

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