An hour before midnight on August 15, 1977, an astronomer working on the SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope of Ohio State University heard a strong signal coming from the constellation Sagittarius.
The signal sequence lasted for the 72 second window that Jerry R Ehman was able to observe it but hasn’t been detected since. It was dubbed the “Wow!” signal after Mr Ehman’s excited scribble on the first print out of the signal.
Many have long believed that the signal was the first evidence of extraterrestrials attempting to communicate with Earth.
It roared through at an atmosphere-piercing 1420 megahertz, corresponding to a wavelength of 21cm, which is one of the main frequencies at which the most common element in the universe, hydrogen atoms, absorb and emit energy.
The alien life hopes were further boosted by several investigations which ruled out Earth and other objects like planets, satellites and asteroids as the source.
Now one of the world’s top scientists claims to have debunked the extraterrestrial theory once and for all.
Antonio Paris, a professor of astronomy at St Petersburg College in Florida, said he started obsessing over the famed signal last July. Then, while driving his car one day, he had what Oprah Winfrey might call a “light bulb moment”.
Professor Antonio Paris will soon get to test his theory as the two comets he believes
My huge head looks like the Wow Signal! — Prof. Antonio Paris (@AntonioParis) February 23, 2016
“Out of the blue, I was looking at a truck passing on a bridge overhead as I drove under it,” Prof Paris told The Tampa Tribune yesterday.
“It occurred to me it could have been an object that went over us, just like the truck; a truck we will never see again. It could have been a comet or asteroid that came over us so many years ago.”
The professor jumped into the rabbit hole that is NASA’s archive and used custom software to track the paths of all the “comets unseen and undiscovered” in 1977.
“We wanted the answer to this and this might be it.”
Prof Paris published his findings last month in an article written with colleague Evan Davies of The Explorers Club in the journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.
He says it won’t be long before his theory can be tested — in front of the world, in real time.
That’s because the two comets he believes caused the “Wow!” signal are due to “return to the scene of the crime” — although not together — in 2017 and 2018.
He said 266P/Christensen will swing by in January 2017 followed by P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) about a year later. While not an exact replica of the situation that is believed to have occurred in 1977, it will still be possible to monitor the comets one at a time and get a good idea if the “Wow!” signal came from them.
“That’s the only problem, in 1977 they were together,” Prof Paris told the Tribune.
“The next time those two comets will pass together though that sector of space will be 600 years. (But) I have a gut feeling that this was a natural phenomenon.”
Prof Paris said most in the astronomical community supported his theory, adding that “everybody is excited, excited to wait for 2017 and 2018 to come around”.
Well, not everybody. Definitely not SETI and especially not conspiracy theorists for whom the words “natural phenomenon” might as well read “death of a dream” or “I just lost my job”.
SETI League executive director Paul Shuch, aka Dr SETI, appeared to shrug off Prof Paris’ paper.
“This is first I’ve heard of it,” he said. “It’s all speculation right now.”
Dr Shuch did concede, however, that if the theory did test right with the return of the comets, it was worthy of a Nobel Prize.
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