In August of 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman pointed the Ohio State University’s radio telescope up at the Sagittarius constellation to see if he could hear anything interesting. Against all odds, he did: a 72 second-long burst of radio waves which by all subsequent analyses came from deep space.
Like anyone would in Ehman’s position, he circled the radio wave data on his computer printout in red ink and wrote Wow! beside it, thereby anointing the Wow! signal, a phenomenon which has baffled astronomers ever since. Most strangely, no other such radio transmission has been detected since that day almost 40 years ago, leaving scientists to wonder whether the Wow! signal was just a glitch in the machinery or maybe an Earth-borne signal that got reflected back home somehow or, this from the lonely folks at the Search for Intelligent Life Institute (SETI), if the Wow! signal was in fact sent by alien broadcasters all those years ago, why oh why haven’t they tried contacting us again?
Enter astrophysicist Antonio Paris of St Petersburg College, Florida, who thinks that he and his colleague Evan Davies have figured out the Wow! signal. Their guess is that the culprits were two comets known as 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs that were passing nearby the Sagittarius constellation on that very day in 1977. Here’s how the theory goes: as they go hurtling through space, comets carry with them an atmospheric cloud of hydrogen gas. Hydrogen clouds, it turns out, emit electromagnetic radiation at a frequency of 1420 MHz – the exact frequency on which the Wow! signal was detected. Thus, Paris and Davies believe that the hydrogen given off by these two clouds was the source of the signal. And they want to prove it, by recreating the exact same circumstances which begat the Wow! signal.
It just so happens that the 266P/Christensen comet will be passing by the same part of the sky (the Chi Sagittarii star group) again on January 25, 2017, and Paris and Davies want to make sure that there’s a radio telescope pointed in that direction to pick up the signal.
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Wouldn’t you know it, though, all the world’s radio telescopes are busy that day (seriously, we’re not making this up), so Paris is pushing to set up his own at a cost of $13,000 USD. He already has a crowdfunding campaign up and running which is apparently doing very well. In an interview with the Guardian, Paris stated, “I would like to [be fully funded] in May, to order the stuff so that I can have it by October,” giving him plenty of time to test the equipment in preparation for the big day in January. We wish you good luck.
Although comets have been observed for millennia due to their bright tails which are sometimes visible to the naked eye, it has only been with modern instruments that astronomers have been able to determine some of their more unique characteristics. In January 2015, the comet C/2014 Q2, known as Comet Lovejoy, passed along the part of its trajectory closest to the sun and was observed to be heating up enough to release into space 21 different organic molecules in gas form –including large amounts of alcohol and sugar, marking the first time that ethyl alcohol has been observed in a comet. “We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” says Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France. And woe to those Parisians who could only but watch as all that good wine was spilt into the heavens.
Comet Lovejoy was visible in Canadian skies from December 2014 until April 2015.
Below: Has Mysterious ‘Alien Wow! Signal’ Finally Been Solved?