Wow! Signal Controversy: Not every scientist agrees on comet explanation

Wow! Signal Controversy: Not every scientist agrees on comet explanation

Last week, it was thought that researchers perhaps closed the book on a 40-year mystery from outer space. Scientists at the Center for Planetary Science suggested in a recent study that the "Wow! signal" — originally detected by astronomers in August of 1977 — was caused by a comet, not aliens.

The signal was given its name when an astronomer was so shocked by the 72-second radio transmission in 1977 that he used a red pen to scrawl the word "Wow!" onto a paper detailing it. Since then, scientists have shown an acute appetite for understanding where the signal came from.

A color copy of the computer printout that one astronomer marked up after receiving the 72-second radio transmission in 1977
Source: NAAPO/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists at the Center for Planetary Science tried to match radio signals with a few fly-by comets. Their results suggest that a hydrogen cloud surrounding the 266P/Christensen comet, which is thought to have an 1420-MHz signal similar to "Wow!" frequencies, could have caused the 1977 mishap.

But others are skeptical of their comet theory. Alan Fitzsimmons, a scientist at the United Kingdom’s Queens University Belfast, told Astronomy Now that it’s actually “rubbish.” He claims that a 1420-MHZ signal from a comet has never been detected before, and that the 266/P Christensen would be too quiet, even at perihelion — the point that a comet is closest to the sun. Meanwhile, comets are typically very active when at perihelion.

"There would have been no hydrogen coma to detect and therefore he could not have seen the comet," Fitzsimmons told Astronomy Now.

But Antonio Paris, a scientist who published the comet theory alongside the Center for Planetary Science, had his own rebuttal:

Astronomers have not detected hydrogen emission from comets because there has not been much research specifically on this subject ... While there has been a handful of studies, I suspect we are the first to build a 10-[meter] telescope to specifically look at this type of Solar System body.

Others have also poked holes in Paris' theory, or at least have questions about it. For now, it seems the four-decade mystery behind the "Wow! signal" is still just that: a mystery.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Kelly Kasulis

Kelly Kasulis is a journalist covering tech and science for Mic. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.

MORE FROM

Employees are getting microchips put in their hands at this US company

They cost $300 a piece, but this U.S. company is about to foot the bill for any employee who signs up.

NASA’s working on quieter supersonic flight, which it wants to help commercialize

What if you could spend less time on a plane to get where you're going?

3 reasons why you shouldn’t have fallen for Elon Musk’s hyperloop plans

Musk claims the hyperloop will take us from New York to D.C. in under 30 minutes, but where's the proof?

Why it’s crucial for Californians to turn off their lights during the upcoming solar eclipse

Officials are hoping residents can offset major energy losses by keeping the lights off.

You can help NASA with your solar eclipse observations on Aug. 21

You'll be an eclipse scientist.

Scientists are pretty sure that deep inside the moon, there’s water

The explosive story of water on the moon.

Employees are getting microchips put in their hands at this US company

They cost $300 a piece, but this U.S. company is about to foot the bill for any employee who signs up.

NASA’s working on quieter supersonic flight, which it wants to help commercialize

What if you could spend less time on a plane to get where you're going?

3 reasons why you shouldn’t have fallen for Elon Musk’s hyperloop plans

Musk claims the hyperloop will take us from New York to D.C. in under 30 minutes, but where's the proof?

Why it’s crucial for Californians to turn off their lights during the upcoming solar eclipse

Officials are hoping residents can offset major energy losses by keeping the lights off.

You can help NASA with your solar eclipse observations on Aug. 21

You'll be an eclipse scientist.

Scientists are pretty sure that deep inside the moon, there’s water

The explosive story of water on the moon.