Monday, April 25, 2011

Did we miss a call from ET in 1977?

Wow! signal printout, photo: The Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical ObservatoryOn August 17, 1977, Ohio State University astronomer Jerry Ehman was sitting at his kitchen table, pouring over pages of printouts from the SETI Project's Big Ear radio telescope's computers. On these pages were line after line of numbers and letters. A cluster of six characters jumped out at Ehman and he circled them in red ink. Next to that circle he wrote: "Wow!".

SETI stands for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, and in the 34 years since Ehman's discovery astronomers have been agonizing over the precise meaning of what has become known as the "Wow! signal". It's non-terrestrial in origin, meaning it's not man-made and didn't originate from Earth. Wow! was traced back to a cluster of 100,000 densely packed stars in the Sagittarius constellation.

But was this just a noisy star, or a signal sent from a distance race? And if this was first contact, why did the sender transmit just once? The mystery is made worse by the "what if" factor: what if Ehman had received the data sooner, or if modern computers were available to crunch the data?

The data was three days old by the time Ehman spotted Wow!, meaning that if it were a message, the sender could have moved on for lack of a reply.

Such a delay wasn't unusual: it was standard practice to distribute Big Ear printouts once a week. Meanwhile, the kinds of computers Ehman might rely on today were still in the future: Steve Wozniak had only just built the Apple I and II. The most computing power SETI had at the time was an already 12-year-old IBM 1130 – powerful for its time but with limited memory and no GUI input.

SETI Institute's research director Jill Tarter, in a conversation with The Reg at SETICon in Santa Clara, California, last year, lamented the missed opportunity and the lack of computing power. "Back in 1977, the computers were just dumping numbers to paper readout that somebody collected every week," she told us. ...

via ET, phone back: Alien quest seeks earthling coders • The Register.


Mike said...

SETI just announced recently that they've run out of funding. They need 25 Mil just to keep in operation... Despite the fact that we've found hundreds of earth-sized planets and some of those are likely in habitable zones, we're losing some of the best tools we have to listen in to these places for traces of life.

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