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Wednesday 27 July 2016

Things that might be due to aliens part 2: The Wow signal....

When we talk about the idea of finding alien life – whether that’s a galactic empire or a single microbe – people often get frustrated by the prevarications and grey-area language scientist use. There’s a good reason for that though: Every time a mistaken or false claim gets into the papers it damages the reputation of all scientists. 

So making a claim as big as first contact, only to have someone else prove you wrong, can end a career. That means research into anything remotely connected to the idea of alien life gets super, super, cautious. But there are a few odd, unsolved, mysteries in space that researchers will admit might – just might as an outside chance – turn out to be alien in origin. Over the upcoming posts I'll take a look at each of the most tantalising in turn...

The Wow signal: 

Probably the most famous of putative alien contacts, the Wow signal was a signal from an unremarkable part of the sky, picked up by the ‘Big Ear’ antenna in 1977. 

Above : The Big Ear at Ohio University.

Big Ear wasn’t designed for hunting down distant signals that precisely, so the exact source of the signal was never pinned down. Subsequent searches of the general area never turned anything up, but the signal showed hallmarks of a man made radio beacon - just from far, far further into space than any human spacecraft has reached. 

Lots of non- ETI explanations have been put forwards, and there is still research going on into them. Some, like an Earth based signal reflecting off space debris, have more or less been ruled out. 

Above: A zoom in showing the (two) possible  areas of the sky that the Wow signal might have come from.

But professor Antonio Paris, formerly of the US department of defense, has launched a crowdfunded investigation into the idea that a passing comet with a hydrogen rich atmosphere could have caused the signal – there were two comets in roughly the right part of the sky on that date

Above: Could a comet be the source? Image courtesy of

Some are sceptical of this explanation, but as Paris points out: Even if he turns out to be wrong, it’s still good science because we are learning something about comets....

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