The Ohio State University SETI program is the longest continuously running electromagnetic Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence to date. In 1977 that sky survey detected a signal which seemed to fit all the characteristics anticipated for communications of intelligent extra-terrestrial origin. The so-called Wow! signal is interesting in its own right, and we analyze it here, applying time-honored reverse engineering principles in trying to ascertain its nature. But it is also important as a possible benchmark, in defining the signal characteristics for which future SETI projects might be searching. Microwave antenna, receiver and digital signal processing technologies have all advanced significantly in the two decades since the detection of the Wow! signal. If we take it as being typical of the types of signals which we are seeking, we can use it to calibrate the effectiveness of future generations of SETI receiving stations. We see that the amateur state-of-the-art is today easily capable of detecting any future Wow! signals which happen our way.
Introduction — Is Amateur SETI Practical?
The ambitious NASA SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program, modestly funded at five cents per American per year, was terminated by Congress in October of 1993, reducing the Federal deficit by 0.0006%. Several organizations arose to privatize the research, including the membership-supported, non-profit SETI League, Inc. The SETI League differs from other space advocacy organizations in that it is a grass-roots movement, composed mainly of radio amateurs, which encourages its individual members to build and operate their own modest SETI receivers. A tax-exempt educational and scientific corporation, we are modeled in large part after the amateur communications satellite organizations, AMSAT and Project OSCAR.
The professional radioastronomy community has voiced an understandable skepticism as to the contributions to science which might be made by a handful of amateurs, funded at a small fraction of the former NASA SETI budget. The late SETI pioneer Dr. Bernard M. Oliver articulated this skepticism well. Barney Oliver’s credentials are impressive. Longtime vice-president of engineering for the Hewlett-Packard Company, he served as president of the IEEE, and was principle author of NASA’s ambitious 1971 Project Cyclops design study for detecting intelligent extra-terrestrial life. He said of amateur SETI, “If your system wouldn’t detect the strongest signal the ETI might radiate, then years of listening, or thousands doing it, won’t improve the chance of success. To cross the Golden Gate, we need a bridge about 10,000 feet long. Ten thousand bridges … one foot long won’t hack it.”
Barney made a good point, even if he was something of a dinosaur. The burden of proof falls to us in the amateur SETI community to demonstrate that our systems are indeed capable of detecting, at the very least, that strongest signal which an extra-terrestrial civilization might generate. We do so through the following analysis of the Ohio State “Wow!” signal. As for the Golden Gate analogy, it would be valid only if SETI proved a serial process. I suggest that it is more of a parallel enterprise, and hope to show in this paper that 10,000 volunteers can, if properly coordinated, accomplish something which Barney Oliver had never contemplated. For we seek to cross not just the Golden Gate, but the gulfs of space, in all directions at once, in real time.