37 years ago today, the Big Ear telescope in Ohio picked up the first and only strong signal from outer space that could be from extra-terrestrials.
Rather embarrassingly for humanity, we behaved like school kids who just received a text from someone they fancied. We spent ages debating whether or not the message was for us; and then we got our mates to help us write a reply which is looking pretty cringey in hindsight.
The radio pulse signal lasted for 72 seconds and was 30 times larger than the background noise, looking exactly like what an interstellar signal should’ve looked like. This caused Jerry R. Ehman, the scientist in charge at the time, to circle the data and write Wow! next to it, giving it the name “The Wow! Signal”.
More importantly the frequency of the unbelievably strong signal — 1420 MHz – is close to the resonant frequency of Hydrogen. This could suggest that an intelligent alien species knows that other intelligent species scan the sky at 1420 MHz to look for hydrogen in space, and so decide to send out a huge artificial blast on that wavelength. Sort of how if you want to advertise something to everyone in your office, you’d put up a sign by the mirror in the lift where you know they will be looking anyway.
Instead of replying straight away, we spent decades debating whether or not the signal even existed. We still have no idea if the signal is actually from outer space or a piece of equipment error, but we figured there was no harm in replying to say hi.
The closest star to the signal’s origin was Tau Sagittarii, so in 2012 we pointed the Arecibo telescope at it and decided to think of a message to send back. Unfortunately because it was 2012 instead of sending a carefully considered message, the Discovery Channel asked twitter to write it for us using #ChasingUFOs.
— Mike $ Lee (@ThisMikeLee) June 29, 2012
Yep, our most likely chance at communicating with non-earth-based intelligent life is currently a stream of 10,000 tweets speeding across the sky at the speed of light. Most of them from over-keen people tweeting their address asking the aliens to come over (a bit forward) and a couple from guys making embarrassing jokes about the Pyramids. However the distinct low point is one-hit-wonder star Andrew W.K.’s video about asking aliens to come teach him how to party.
Much like waking up the following morning with a hangover and a phone full of text messages that you can’t un-send, humanity has to watch as these awful outdated pop culture references spill out across the stars, powerless to stop them and knowing full well we’ve blown our chances.
But when will we get a reply? Organising first dates with aliens isn’t that exact a science — but those of us alive now are fortunately not going to have to live through the consequences of spamming little green men with early naughties frat-punk-pop.
Tau Sagittarii itself is 122 light years from earth, so it will be 2256 AD before we’ll know for sure if the Tau Sagittarians are just going to ignore us, or come over and re-animate Andrew W.Ks corpse, forcing it to perform Party Hard over and over again.
I want to believe…
Matt is a Tau Sagittarian sent to Earth to decode naughties pop culture references for his relatives at home. He does this at @arcadia_eg0