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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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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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