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article imageThe 'WOW' Mystery Turns 30

By RobotGod     Aug 18, 2007 in Science
30 years ago, astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking over a printout of radio data from Ohio State University's Big Ear Radio Observatory when he saw a string of code so remarkable that he had to circle it and scribble "Wow!" in the margin.
Cosmiclog takes a look back at the "wow" signal.
Was it a burst of human-made interference? An alien broadcast? No one knows. The source of the "Wow" signal has never been heard from again, even though astronomers have looked for it ever since.
SETI is going to look for it one more time, this time using the latest gadget for seeking signals from extraterrestrial civilizations: the Allen Telescope Array located in California.
The array brings together observations from dozens of separate 20-foot-wide radio dishes to produce an instrument that will eventually become more sensitive than the world's largest dish telescope, the Arecibo Observatory.
"Once the Allen Telescope Array is up and running, and that should be later this year, there's going to be a small project in which we'll look at the same section where the 'Wow' signal was detected, and of course the same spot on the radio dial," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, told me today.
That area has been swept many times, but this will bring more sensitivity and wider spectral coverage. This is good news for the man behind the Wow note.
"Back in 1977, of course, the computers weren't very powerful," he told me. "Nowadays, if you have the money, you can get excellent receivers, filter banks, computers - you can do much more now than you could in 1977."
But he knows that they may find nothing once again.
"With the Big Ear Radio Telescope, we stayed on that same strip of sky for close to two months and didn't see anything," he said. "A few years later, we looked at that same area of sky and didn't see anything. That was frustrating."
When it happened and they found that single radio burst, they tried everything to come up with an Earthly explanation. They could not find any glitches in the system and there was no source that would explain the strength and the frequency of the short burst.
One might think that he had aliens on his mind when he wrote that legendary 3 letter word in red, but that's not the case.
"The 'Wow' was just an instantaneous response in writing," he said. "I had no expectations, other than 'here's something extremely interesting - and gee, let's try to find out what it is, or what it isn't.'"
One can only hope that we get an answer, but most likely we will never know.
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