Mysterious signal from space was unlikely alien, but passing comets: study

The notations that earned the famous unexplained signal the name of "Wow! signal.". Wikimedia Commons/The Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO).

On Aug. 15, 1977, a signal was received from space unlike any astronomers had ever received. And then it was gone. For years some postulated that it could have been alien in origin, but now two astronomers believe that there is a more likely explanation: passing comets.

READ MORE: Mysterious signal from space: Is it alien or an unknown phenomenon?

The 72-second-long signal — referred to as the “Wow! signal” — was picked up by Jerry Ehman at the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University, at a wavelength that astronomers had thought a good candidate at which to receive alien signals. Astronomers were stumped after ruling out a passing satellite or the reflection of a radio source from Earth. The only problem was, there was never any duplication from that area in space or anywhere else.

Now in a new paper, two scientists believe that the cause of the signal lies in hydrogen clouds from two passing comets, Comet 266/P Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs).

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These two comets passed within the area of the “Wow! signal” from July 27, 1977 to Aug. 15, 1977, but were unknown at the time (when astronomers discover a comet, they can trace its orbit back in time).

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“The data regarding comets 266P/Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs)…strongly suggest either comet, or both, could be the source of the hydrogen line signal detected by the Ohio State University on 1977 August 15,” the researchers said in their paper.

They suggest looking at the same area of space when the comets next pass: on Jan. 25, 2017 for comet 266/P Christensen and Jan. 7, 2018, for P/2008 Y2.

The reason, they say, is that chemicals in comets emit radio waves and the Big Ear telescope could have intercepted them.

Now, if you’re disappointed that the source of the waves are more celestial than alien in origin, don’t be too dismayed yet: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory James Bauer told New Scientist that he agrees that hydrogen clouds can extend far from comets, but isn’t quite convinced that the signal would be strong enough.

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“If comets were radio-bright at 21 centimetres [the signal’s wavelength], I would be puzzled as to why they aren’t observed more often at those wavelengths,” he told the magazine.

So E.T. may be out there yet.

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