Are aliens trying to contact us from outer space?
That’s a question that Antonio Paris, an astronomy professor at St. Petersburg College in Florida, is trying to address. And he’s bringing us closer to an answer than we’ve ever been before.
It all started in 1977 when Jerry Ehman, a radio astronomer using the Big Ear radio telescope in Ohio, picked up a powerful signal coming from deep space. The signal was 30 times more powerful than the average radiation coming from that area. Ehman excitedly circled the signal in the data and scribbled “Wow!” in red pen. From then on, it was known as the Wow! signal.
Despite attempts to detect the signal again, it never reappeared, and rumours that it was actually an intercepted alien transmission began to surface.
In 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the discovery of the Wow! signal, a concerted effort between National Geographic and Arecibo Observatory even tried to send messages back to the source of the signal. They transmitted a package into space containing more than 10,000 tweets and videos from celebrities, and they’re still waiting on a response.
A break in the case
The mysterious Wow! signal, a longstanding unsolved mystery in the science community, caught Paris’ attention. Before Paris became a scientist, he told Business Insider, he spent 10 years in military intelligence and another four as a Department of Defence special agent in the Pentagon. When he made the move to astronomy, he carried his investigative impulses with him. It’s these impulses that have brought him close to cracking the case.
Paris had a hunch that the signal was actually a result of natural phenomena, not aliens, as others had speculated. He approached things from a detective’s perspective, he said, revisiting the crime scene to pick up new clues. He believed advances in technology made over the past few decades could shine new light on what he referred to as a “cold case,” dormant for the past 40 years.
“I had a description of what the suspects should look like,” he said. “I found that there are several comets in the area that match that description.”
The top suspect
ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM — CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
A comet passing by might create a signal very similar to the Wow! signal.
A subtle trail of scientific clues led Paris to this suspect. Paris knew that every object in the observable universe, from comets to quasars and even our own moon, emits some sort of spectrum of frequencies. These spectra reach Earth, penetrating our atmosphere and raining down on us.
As comets pass by the sun, ultraviolet light breaks up their frozen water, creating a large cloud of hydrogen gas around them. The frequency of the Wow! signal matches a frequency naturally emitted by hydrogen. This means that comets passing in front of a telescope like the Big Ear would generate a brief signal that might match the Wow! signal.
When the Wow! signal was first picked up, no one knew these comets existed, so no one had considered this idea.
But the idea that comets are responsible for this mysterious signal is not without its critics. Some researchers, like James Bauer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, aren’t buying it. Bauer told New Scientistthat he agrees that the hydrogen from comets can extend quite far, but still thinks the signal won’t be strong enough. And the case of the Wow! isn’t closed yet. Paris and his colleagues still need to test their hypothesis using something called a radio telescope.
The radio telescope will pick up spectra signals like a dish for cable TV picks up the signal a satellite emits. If they point the telescope at a specific area, it should be able to pick up the signal and analyse the spectrum to tell them what they’re looking at. In this case, Paris would use the telescope to look for the hydrogen line spectrum.
Paris and his colleagues hope to have their telescope up and running by January 25, 2017, when one of the comets will once again be in the neighbourhood of the “Wow” signal again.
A call to action
With the deadline fast approaching, Paris and his colleagues are scrambling to gather the money needed for their experiment. Instead of going through the time and money consuming process of writing grant proposals, Paris and his colleagues decided to crowdfund their campaign, calling on the public to make contributions to their cause. Since starting campaigns, Paris has raised more than $16,000, and received thousands of emails of support from people looking to get involved.
“I’m really excited that I’ve gathered so much support from the community- both from people love and people don’t love science,” Paris said. “They just want to see if we can finally solve this 40-year-old mystery.”
Paris believes there is no wrong or right answer when it comes to science. Even if the experiment finds that comets are not the culprits in this 40-year-old mystery, removing variables from the equation is still good science. And they would be able to use their new telescope to continue investigating the case.
“There are no emotions in science,” Paris said. “Only phenomena to study.”
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