Comets get blamed for everything. Pestilence in medieval Europe? Comets! Mass extinctions? Comets! Even the anomalous brightness variations in the Kepler star KIC 8462852 was blamed for a time on comets. Now it looks like the most famous maybe-ET signal ever sifted from the sky, the so-called “Wow!” signal, may also be traced to comets.
Say it ain’t so!
In August 1977, radio astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking through observation data from the Ohio State’s now-defunct Big Ear radio telescope gathered a few days earlier on August 15. He was searching for signals that stood apart from the background noise that might be broadcast by an alien civilization. Since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and emits energy at the specific frequency of 1420 megahertz (just above the TV and cellphone bands), aliens might adopt it as the “lingua franca” of the cosmos. Scientists here on Earth concentrated radio searches at and around that frequency looking for strong signals that mimicked hydrogen.
Ehman’s searches turned up mostly background noise, but that mid-August night he spotted a surprise — a vertical column with the alphanumerical sequence “6EQUJ5″ that indicated a strong signal at hydrogen’s frequency. Exactly as predicted. Big Ear picked up the signal from near the 5th magnitude star Chi-1 Sagittarii in eastern Sagittarius not far from the globular cluster M55.
Astonished by the find, Ehman pulled out a red pen, circled the sequence and wrote a big “Wow!” in the margin. Ever since, it’s been called the Wow! signal and considered one of the few signals from space that defies explanation. Before we look at how that may change, let’s make sense of the code.