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Searching for the signal

Published June 30. 2012 09:01AM

UFO enthusiasts had an opportunity to make history last night as the National Geographic Channel offered those who wished to participate the chance to tweet a 140 character message to the hash tag #ChasingUFOs. All the messages were collected and they will be consolidated into a single transmission that is going to be beamed into space toward a region from which an unusual signal was received 35 years ago.

The signal referred to by researchers as the Wow! signal was originally recorded by astronomer Jerry Ehman according to Wikipedia. Ehman was a researcher at the time with the SETI project at the Big Ear telescope located on the campus of Ohio State University. SETI or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is a collective set of projects that have been searching the heavens for decades looking for clues that would signal a sign of intelligent life out there in the universe.

The search actually has its roots with Nikola Tesla who first proposed that radio waves may be a way to find extraterrestrial life. This proposition was made in 1896. The first major attempt was in 1924 when the United States promoted a radio silence day as Mars moved into a close opposition with the Earth. According to a blog called Letters of Note (, the military tried to get the private broadcasters to observe radio silence to facilitate the chance of receiving radio transmissions from our neighboring planet, but the experiment failed in two ways. First the government was unable to enforce the silence and the station owners refused to comply and continued to broadcast. Second, the transmissions made by the Army and Navy failed to turn up any signs of intelligent life transmitting from Mars.

In 1960 and 1961, the modern SETI efforts began by researchers with most efforts focused on scanning the large variety of frequencies and wavelengths of sound to locate possible signs of intelligence in all the random frequencies. It was in 1975 when a strange sequence of signals was heard by Ehman who was so impressed with what he found that he wrote the word Wow! next to the anomaly in red ink.

The problem was while he heard the signal once, Ehman was unable to find a repeat of the signal for months after the incident. Through the years there have been several attempts to pinpoint and find more anomalous signals in that region of the night sky but no one has had any luck rediscovering the signal. Over the years, Ehman has looked at various possible explanations to no avail. Some suggested they were Earthly in origin and reflected off some kind of space debris, but the problem was the frequency was in a band forbidden to earthly transmitters.

As you may or may not be aware, broadcasters are given frequency ranges by the Federal Communications Commission and certain bands are reserved for the astronomical uses and other protected agencies. The bands in which the heard signal were transmitted were not in an approved range which meant that if they were earthly in origin, they were broadcast on a forbidden band or they were military in origin. Researchers though are skeptical of this explanation.

Regardless National Geographic is attempting to broadcast a signal into the area of the night sky from which the Wow! signal was received so many years ago in the hopes that the signal would reach an intelligent destination. It should be obvious that even if it does reach an alien race they could have a problem determining what it means much the Wow! signal which no one has deciphered either. Scientists are optimistic about the experiment though since in order for the signal we received to reach us, an alien civilization would have needed to use a 2.2 gigawatt transmitter. According to Fox News, there is no earthly transmitter capable of sending such a signal. Because of this, scientists believe that such a civilization could be much more advanced than us and more able to translate a coded message we would send to them. This makes them optimistic such an experiment could succeed.

In the end, I think we all wonder about whether there is life "out there" at one time or another.

Some anxiously await the day when they believe all will be revealed, others are concerned about what this would mean for humanity. I find it fascinating we have the ability to take such steps today to make contact. The day this occurs will be historical indeed. I hope that maybe such a determination could be made in my life span as that would be one of the pinnacles of scientific achievement and it would be cool to see that announcement. Until then we have to wait and see if we can find another signal.

Til next time ….

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