About 35 years ago, Earth came as close as it’s ever come to communicating with extraterrestrials.
At 11:16 p.m. eastern time on Aug. 15, 1977, the Big Ear radio telescope in Ohio detected a narrow band radio transmission from what appeared to be outer space. Jerry R. Ehman discovered the signal a few days later, while examining computer printouts from the telescope.
There it was, a combination of six letters and numbers: “6EQUJ5.”
To most, the output would’ve been gibberish. But Ehman had written much of the software. To him, the letters and numbers spelled out a series of signal-to-noise ratios — the same ratios scientists expected to see if an alien culture, somewhere in the vastness of space, aimed a radio transmission at Earth. It could, Ehman knew, be first contact.
He scrawled a single word in the margin beside the output code: “Wow!” And thereafter, the transmission became known as the Wow! signal.
What the signal represents is ambiguous. Big Ear never detected the signal again, despite repeated attempts. Analysis indicated the signal probably lasted no longer than 150 seconds.
Was it really an alien transmission, or was it something more prosaic — a coded transmission from a satellite or spacecraft, a ground-based signal somehow picked up by the telescope, planetary noise or a one-time quirk, like a terrestrial radio transmission that had bounced off of a piece of space junk for a couple minutes? If it was alien, why didn’t it repeat? Were the aliens doing like Big Ear and searching an ever-changing grid? Could the telescope have happened upon it just before the transmission turned to focus on a different slice of space?
What is sure is that the signal was 30 times stronger than any other detected before or since by SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
“To this day it remains unexplained,” according to a news release from the National Geographic Channel, “and more importantly, unanswered. But if the Wow! signal really was a cosmic ‘tweet’ from our nearest neighbors, we think it’s high time we send an @reply.”
From 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. central time on June 29, National Geographic will collect tweets that bear the hash tag #ChasingUFOs. On Aug. 15, the tweets and videos from earthly notables will be packaged together and transmitted into space by the Arecibo Observatory, a massive radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
The effort ties in with National Geographic’s new television series, “Chasing UFOs,” which looks really cheesy (see videos below). But even if it’s a publicity stunt, it’s kind of cool to send a tweet into outer space.
For more information, go online to www.thewowreply.com.