Was it a contact from other life forms out there?  Was it a satellite or spacecraft?  Or was it a computer glitch?  The WOW signal still continues to create intrigue to this day.  It is coming up to the 35th anniversary of its discovery so I decided to find out a little bit more about this mysterious signal.

August 15, 1977 may be etched into the minds of some people, it was the night before Elvis Presley died, but it was also the night that a signal from space was detected.  Uncovered by Jerry Ehman, the WOW signal was a strong narrowband radio signal.  Ehman was part of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project working at the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio, USA at the time.

The Big Ear telescope was in operation from 1971 until it was demolished in 1998 to make way for a golf course.  In 1973, the Big Ear began to search for radio signals originating from somewhere other than Earth and outside of our Solar System.This deep sky survey ended in 1995 which happens to make it the longest running SETI project in history.  The scientists at the Big Ear Observatory even received recognition for this achievement by making it into the Guinness book of records.

The signal, which lasted 72 seconds came from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius (and towards the packed together stars of the galactic core), and has never been detected since.  At the time it was difficult to tell where the signal had come from as there was a delay between the message arriving, and it being discovered on the printout.  Once found, it became known as the “WOW signal” after Ehman circled the signal and wrote the word “WOW!” beside it.  Beside the word “WOW” you will noticed these six characters circled as well, this is the most compelling evidence yet of technological life out there!

The famous WOW signal on paper Credit- Wikipedia


But to us, this code is just a series of letters and numbers so let’s look deeper into its meaning.

The series “6EQUJ5” described the strength of the received signal over a short time-span. Each number from 1 to 9 represented the signal level above the background noise.  The letters represent a scale extension, with each one from A to Z representing increasingly stronger signal levels. 6EQUJ5 represented a signal that grew in strength to level “U”, and then gradually subsided. In numeric terms, the signal increased from zero to level 30 “sigmas” above the background noise, and then decreased again to zero.

On first analysis it appeared to be an artificial radio signal rather than a natural radio emission such as a pulsar or quasar.  Using a receiver with 50 radio channels the Big Ear only heard the signal on one frequency, with no noise on any of the other channels.  It happens that a natural emission would cause static to appear on all of the frequencies, and this was not the case.  The signal was also narrow and focused, as would be expected from an artificial source.

A possible explanation could have been a transmission from a satellite.  However the fact that it was not observed again does not help this theory as an orbiting satellite would normally broadcast  its signal repeatedly. Nor were any planets or asteroids in the vicinity, even if they were radio transmissions would not be expected to come from them.  Similarly there were no spacecraft in that area of space, but if there had been, none would have been transmitting around the 1420MHz that the message was received at.

Many people believe that it couldn’t have been a signal from a distant planet because surely they would have sent more than just one.  But let’s think about it, we sent out a message into outer space in 1974.  It was sent using the Arecibo telescope and it was only sent the once!  The Arecibo telescope is 1000ft in diameter and is based in Puerto Rico.  It was aimed at the globular star cluster M13 which is 2 ,000 light years away and the message lasted a mere three minutes.  If you have seen the film “Goldeneye” then you have seen this huge structure as it features in the climax at the end between Sean Bean and Pierce Brosnan’s characters.

The Arecibo Telescope Credit- Wikipedia


Through the years, as equipment advanced and capabilities improved the search for the signal continued.

In 1987 and in 1989, Astronomer Robert Gray, searched againfor this mysterious voice from the sky, but didn’t find any trace.  Gray, using the Very Large Array, tried again in 1995 and 1996, but he did not have any luck finding a signal.  In 1999 he tried again alongside Dr. Simon Ellingsen, using the University of Tasmania’s Hobart 26m radio telescope in six 14-hour observations, but detected nothing.

Graph showing signal strength versus time Credit- Wikipedia

(Article by Sinead McNicholl)


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Memed · February 6, 2018 at 20:08

Admin: Certain parts of your article may potentially be misinterpreted by others. Although you go on to correctly explain the nature of the signal, your use of the word “code” is erroneous and can mislead uncritical people into thinking there was some message that was encoded. Also, the circling of the 6 letters is not “compelling evidence” of technological life. It isn’t evidence at all. You correctly go on to explain that it is just a conventional method of representing signal strength, but such statements will confuse people.

You left out two very important things:
1- The frequency 1420 Mhz isn’t just any old frequency. It is that of the vibration of the hydrogen electron, the single most abundant, essential element in the universe. If there is one way to make your presence obvious and artificial, it is through this freq.

2- The most likely explanation for the signal is thought to be an earth-based rogue transmission that happened to reflect off of a passing piece of space debris close to Earth. This is the best scenario that explains why it was never detected again; why it wasn’t detected by telescopes in other areas; it was highly local due to the sheer chance that space debris would be at just the right angle at that time to reflect it to a specific spot on Earth.

Lastly, the Joseph guy is clueless. No one in the scientific community presumed an alien spacecraft. The signal has nothing to do with Tau Ceti. It has been tracked to a very small but specific area. Due to the design of the telescope, the signal could have come from either of two elliptical areas parallel to each other, something like this:
() ()
It’s impossible to know which one. There happens to be a single star, as far as I have been able to gather, in each elliptical area.

I don’t understand why this hasn’t been conclusively solved. Inspecting the two (or possibly more but fainter) stars in the region can tell us what class star it is, and possibly (but not likley) if there is a planetary system. We can then rule out the possibility of intelligent life depending on the data, on move on with our lives.

Joseph Titus · August 17, 2015 at 16:41

Wow presumably originated from a passing alien spacecraft.That it was caught from the general direction Saggitarius is incidental. There was nothing except empty space in the source direction.Nearest star was Tao Ceti. It is ominous to point out that many years before the reception of this signal in the Ohio State Observatory’s Radio Telescope Nicola Tesla during his outer space experimentation from his observatory complex had alleged to have received intelligent signals from Tao Ceti and Epsilon Eridani.
It is worthwhile to find out if Tao Ceti is encircled by planets and if so are any in the ‘Goldilocks’ Zone?Suspicious case indeed.

    admin · August 18, 2015 at 07:39

    Dear Joseph, I do not understand why you think think this signal is connected to Tau Ceti. I would be very grateful if you can supply a source for your claim that Tesla heard signals from Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. For your interest there is evidence that there could at least five planets orbiting Tau Ceti (link).

The “Wow! Reply” – SETI Stunt, Science, or Threat? | Astrowright · July 23, 2013 at 02:32

[…] Specifically, the initiative’s concept was to solicit tweets from the public, collect and compress them into a digital package, and then “beam” the collective message into space as a potential reply to the famed, so-called ”Wow! Signal.” […]

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