Aliens astronomy Physics

Wow! mystery signal from space finally explained

Forty years ago a signal–called the Wow! signal–was obtained from space. Some speculated that it might be from an intelligent alien source. Read Wow! Communications from little green men?

Now it is argued that that it was not from little green men, but from a comet. Such is the hype around detection of a signal from aliens that common sense is ignored. Well, time, real science and cool heads have won out. The original source has been found.

Wow! mystery signal from space finally explained
Location of the two comets shown on the sky by pink ellipses. Credit: The Center for Planetary Science

The comets, P/2008 Y2(Gibbs) and 266/P Christensen, which were not known back 40 years ago when the Wow! Signal was first obtained, appeared again in the night sky from November 2016 through February of 2017.

An online news site reports from the astronomy team.1

The team reports that radio signals from 266/P Christensen matched those from the Wow! Signal 40 years ago. To verify their results, they tested readings from three other comets, as well, and found similar results. The researchers acknowledge that they cannot say with certainty that the Wow! signal was generated by 266/P Christensen, but they can say with relative assurance that it was generated by a comet.

Aliens astronomy Physics

Wow! Communications from little green men?

Several years ago (2010) I met an astronomer from Jodrell Banks radio telescope (one of the first big ones operated by the UK) and she told me the story of a signal being detected, which was thought to be from some intelligent alien source in the cosmos.

The signal was detected at 10.30 am every time. After some investigation, it turned out to be the microwave oven used to heat the muffins for morning tea. It was from an intelligent source after all, but not from space. Her anecdote sounds very similar to what was proven to have been the source of some anomalous signals at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

Perytons at Parkes

Figure 1: The Parkes radio telescope Credit: Diceman Stephen West (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: The Parkes radio telescope
Credit: Diceman Stephen West (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
According to Simon Johnston, head of astrophysics at CSIRO, in 1998 the Parkes radio telescope began detecting some fast radio bursts and related signals named perytons once or twice a year. It was theorised that these may have been signals from another galaxy, or emissions from neutron stars becoming black holes, or just interference from lightning strikes. But in 2015 it was determined that perytons were detected by the Parkes telescope when staff opened the door of the microwave oven at the facility to heat their lunch.1

“ … 1 January [2015] they installed a new receiver which monitored interference, and detected strong signals at 2.4 GHz, the signature of a microwave oven.”1

Immediate testing of the facility microwave oven did not show up any perytons. Until, that is, they opened the oven door before it had finished heating. “If you set it to heat and pull it open to have a look, it generates interference,” Johnston said.

Problem solved! No signal there from ‘little green men’ either!