We finally know what the mysterious Wow! signal in space was

7 Jun 2017

Group of radio telescopes. Image: sdecoret/Shutterstock

One of the greatest astronomical mysteries of the past few decades, the Wow! signal, has been solved – and it definitely isn’t aliens.

In 1977, a team of astronomers listening to the cosmos at Ohio State University had been analysing recordings of the radio frequencies from the night before, only to find something that appeared to be truly remarkable.

Unlike anything they had ever seen, the signal captured by the ‘Big Ear’ telescope appeared to show an emission that could not be created naturally, resulting in the now famous scrawling of “Wow!” by astronomer Jerry Ehman.

Future Human

Since then, astronomers have agonised over what it could have been, with some going so far as to suggest it was humankind’s first recording of an extra-terrestrial signal.

Sadly, for those who follow this belief, new research conducted by the Centre of Planetary Science (CPS) in the US has finally solved the mystery.

As it turns out, the strange reading was the result of a comet that, at that time, was unknown to science.

In a paper published to the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, lead researcher Antonio Paris and his team explained how the pieces began to fit together last year when it was suggested the signal could have come from a hydrogen cloud accompanying a comet.

Wow signal

The famous Wow! signal. Image: North American AstroPhysical Observatory

Definitely not aliens

This would help solve one of the major parts of the mystery – that being, why the signal was never heard again – as the comet would have been travelling through space.

By looking back through the records to 1977, the researchers saw that there would have been two comet candidates that, at the time, had yet to be discovered, but appeared once again in the night sky in November 2016 and February 2017.

By focusing their telescopes on the latter, 266/P Christensen, the team was able to show similar results to that seen with the Wow! signal.

For those still holding out hope of an alien signal, the team admits that this is not 100pc proof of it being the answer to the mystery, but they are quite certain it is.

While this solves one mystery, many continue to cause much debate and speculation in the astronomical community, such as an object discovered in March that is in a location it really shouldn’t be.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic