The Wow! Signal: An Alien Missed Connection?


Did humanity’s first contact with aliens already happen back in 1977? Probably not, but we may never know for sure.

On August 15, 1977, the Big Ear Radio Telescope in Delaware, Ohio, received the most powerful signal it would ever detect during its decades of observations. The signal lasted just 72 seconds, but when an astronomer spotted it on a computer printout days later, he was so impressed that he quickly scrawled “Wow!” in red pen across the page. The data looked much like what SETI astronomers expected to see from an alien intelligence. However, despite many attempts to follow up on the find, the so-called “Wow! Signal” has never reappeared.

Few moments in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have captivated the public’s imagination quite like the Wow! Signal. To some, it’s the most promising potential detection of alien life ever. But others see it as a triumph of publicity over science.

“Was that E.T. or was it not E.T.? Nobody knows,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, tells Astronomy. “Nobody has ever found another explanation for what that might have been. It’s like you hear chains rattling in your attic and you think ‘My god ghosts are real.’ But then you never hear them again, so what do you think?” Most importantly, Shostak says that if the signal wouldn’t have had Wow! written across it, no one would’ve ever heard of it. One-off signals like this were common back in the early days of SETI, when observatory computers were too primitive to notify astronomers of discoveries in real time, or perform rapid-fire follow-ups.

But that hasn’t stopped astronomers from repeatedly returning to this patch of sky searching for the return of the Wow! Signal.

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