TAMPA — An astronomer listening to the void of space nearly four decades ago, hoping to hear a sequence of blips, or beeps, or squelches that rose above the random chaotic noises of the cosmos, heard something one night that electrified the scientific community and the world.
On Aug. 15, 1977, Jerry R. Ehman, an astronomy professor at Ohio State University, was part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project at the Big Ear radio telescope at a university observatory in Delaware, Ohio, when a blast of radio waves snapped him to attention.
The signal which appeared to have come from a region of space near the Sagittarius constellation, prompted Ehman to scribble “Wow” in red ink next to a couple of circled numbers on a print-out of what he heard. The radio signal lasted 72 seconds. The “Wow Signal,” as it has become known, was never heard again and scientists have ruled out anything from Earth or man made as the source of the signal.
From there, the mantra of “We are not alone,” took hold. Hollywood grabbed the kernel of truth and ran with it in the movie, “Contact,” in which aliens use radio waves to make acquaintances with Jodie Foster.
Now, a scientist with the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa believes he has found the source of that noise and it may put to rest the theories involving extraterrestrials, be they cute and friendly like E.T., or malevolent and conquering like the Borg.
As people were looking to the skies, Antonio Paris was studying NASA databases that track the paths of comets discovered since 1977. In that snowstorm of numbers is the likely source of the “Wow Signal,” Paris said, and it has more to do with chunks of rock and ice screeching through the nothingness of space, than aliens trying to reach out to humankind.
Paris said that in August 1977, no known comets were in the area between Earth and the region where the astronomers believed signals came from. But by studying the paths of recently discovered comets, Paris learned that two — 266P/Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) — passed through that part of space at that time, on that date 39 years ago. And, Paris said, they may very well have caused the sound that Ehman heard.
“As comets come closer to the sun, the heat melts them and they send out giant clouds of icy water,” said Paris, director of space programs at MOSI and astronomy professor at St. Petersburg College. “It creates a halo of hydrogen around the comet. In just the right situation, there’s a chance that halo of hydrogen could have given off the ‘Wow Signal.’ ”
He said he started “brainstorming” about the scientific mystery in July.
“I like to use the term ‘revisiting the crime scene,’ the astronomy crime scene,” he said,
One day while driving in his car and thinking about the “Wow Signal” he had a revelation.
“Out of the blue, I was looking at a truck passing on a bridge overhead as I drove under it. It occurred to me it could have been an object that went over us, just like the truck; a truck we will never see again. It could have been a comet or asteroid that came over us so many years ago.”
His research delved into NASA databases, using sophisticated software that tracks paths of comets unseen and undiscovered nearly four decades ago.
“We found two culprits which went all the way back to the original source of the signal,” he said. “They were there on the same exact date, time, and in the neighborhood from where the signal was detected.
“We wanted the answer to this and this might be it.”
Paris published his findings in a recent article written with colleague Evan Davies in the journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.
“Most in the astronomical community like the paper,” he said. “Everybody is excited, excited to wait for 2017 and 2018 to come around.” That’s when the comets will return to the scene of the crime, though not together.
He said 266P/Christensen will come in January 2017 and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) will swing by about a year later.
“That’s the only problem,” he said. “In 1977, they were together.”
The next time those two comets will pass together though that sector of space will be 600 years, he said.
Though astronomers in their lifetimes won’t be able to re-create the exact situation from 1977, they can monitor the comets as they pass one at a time to see if the “Wow Signal” may have come from them.
If not, the origin of the radio pulses heard by Ehman an hour before midnight on Aug. 15, 1977 will remain a mystery.
“I have a gut feeling,” Paris said, “that this was a natural phenomenon.”
He said his paper already is getting “push back,” not from scientists and astronomers, “but from conspiracy theorists.
“There have been only one or two who have gently sent me information and wished me luck,” he said. “I tell them to show me their research.”
Paul Shuch, executive director emeritus of the SETI League, a grass-roots group that promotes private SETI research and education, is pushing back. He said he is looking forward to the testing of the theory when the comets return next year and the year after.
“This is first I’ve head of it,” he said of Paris’ paper. “It’s all speculation right now.”
Shuch, reached Tuesday afternoon at his home in Pennsylvania, earned a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and now is known online as Dr. SETI, a scientist dedicated to searching for life in the cosmos.
“Even with the presence of comets,” said Shuch, “I can see no logical way that, of itself, explains that phenomenon.
“We know that known natural phenomena always emit broad-band signals,” he said. “The ‘Wow Signal’ was decidedly a narrow-band. Therefore there is no known astrophysical phenomenon of a natural origin that could have caused this.
“After multiple re-analyses of data, many hypotheses were ruled out,” Shuch said. “There are only two likely ones left.
“Either it was an inadvertently intercepted extraterrestrial communication or a previously unknown natural astrophysical phenomenon.
“Either possibility is worthy of a Nobel Prize, if we only knew which,” he said. “The problem is we don’t.”
“If comets are capable of this, that would be an exciting discovery,” he said. “If it’s a natural phenomenon, that would be brand new.”