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We Shouldn’t Give Up on SETI

It’s been 35 years since the most tantalizing signal, but the prospect of finding cosmic company is looking brighter than ever

4 min read
Astronomer Jerry Ehman annotated this computer printout of radio data
Photo: The Ohio State University Observatory/North American Astrophysical Observatory

It’s undoubtedly the best-known evidence that someone might be out there. Thirty-five years ago, on 15 August 1977, the “Big Ear” antenna at the Ohio State University Radio Observatory picked up a signal that had all the trademarks of a deliberately produced transmission from deep space. It was so impressive that Jerry Ehman, the astronomer on duty, wrote “Wow!” on the computer printout generated by the telescope. That bit of creative labeling ensured that the blip would become the most famous signal event in the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

No one knows what the “Wow!” signal was. Several experiments have tried to find it again, including an automatic reobservation by the Ohio State antenna at the time of the detection. But it remains a permanent no-show. Maybe it was E.T. pinging our solar system. Then again, perhaps it was merely an instrumental glitch or terrestrial interference. The latter explanation is likely, according to the Ohio State scientists I’ve talked to. But in any case, without a confirming detection, no one can rightly claim that aliens were responsible for the “Wow!”

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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