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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.