Tag Archives: Wow! signal

Astronomers confirm that comet caused Wow! signal, not aliens

Astronomers have confirmed that the Wow! signal, thought to be the most promising detection by SETI of alien life, was actually caused by a comet.

Last year, a group of researchers from the Center of Planetary Science proposed a new hypothesis that argued a comet might be the culprit. The frequency could be caused by the hydrogen cloud they carry, and the fact that they move accounts for why it seemingly disappeared. Two comets, named 266/P Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs), happened to be transiting through that region of space when the Wow! signal was detected, but they weren’t discovered until after 2006.

To test the hypothesis, the team made 200 radio spectrum observations between November 2016 and February 2017. Sure enough, 266/P Christensen was found to emit radio waves at a frequency of 1,420 MHz, and to double check, the researchers moved their radio telescope by one degree. As expected, the signal vanished, and only returned when the telescope was trained back on the comet.

This story demonstrates once again why, in science, it is very dangerous to jump to any conclusions. The data we receive is a mystery. We must keep an open mind to solve that mystery.

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Funds needed to identify “Wow!” signal

An astronomer who thinks the “Wow!” radio signal was not from aliens but caused by two comets that were not known at the time is trying to crowd-source the funds he needs to obtain radio telescope time to prove his theory.

Comet 266P/Christensen will pass the Chi Sagittarii star group again on 25 January 2017, while 335P/Gibbs will make its passage on 7 January 2018. Paris plans to observe these events to look for a recurrence of the mystery signal. But time is not on his side for using an existing radio telescope – they are all booked out.

So, he has launched a crowdfunding campaign on gofundme to raise the $13,000 he needs to buy a radio telescope to make the observation. Donations are rolling in and he is already most of the way to his target. “I would like to [be fully funded] in May, order the stuff so that I can have it by October,” he says. This would give him time to construct the dish, test it and prepare for the January encounter.

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Was the Wow! signal from two comets?

One of the most baffling radio astronomical detections, dubbed the “Wow! signal” and that some believe could have been caused by an extraterrestrial transmission, is now theorized to have been caused by two comets, not an alien civilization.

Antonio Paris, a professor of astronomy at St Petersburg College in Florida, thinks the signal might have come from one or more passing comets. He points the finger at two suspects, called 266P/Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs). “I came across the idea when I was in my car driving and wondered if a planetary body, moving fast enough, could be the source,” he says.

Comets release a lot of hydrogen as they swing around the sun. This happens because ultraviolet light breaks up their frozen water, creating a cloud of the gas extending millions of kilometres out from the comet itself. If the comets were passing in front of the Big Ear in 1977, they would have generated an apparently short-lived signal, as the telescope (now dismantled) had a fixed field of view. Searching that same area – as subsequent radio telescopes did – wouldn’t show anything. Tracing the comets’ positions back in time, Paris says that the possible origin for the Wow! signal falls right between where they would have been.

Neither comet was known in 1977; they were both discovered in the last decade, which would mean nobody would have thought to search for them.

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