S02 Episode 3: The Last Flight

At 1pm Eastern Time on Wednesday February 22nd 2017, NASA held a live press conference to make an exciting announcement.  They had discovered a peculiar solar system located roughly 40 light years from earth.

At the heart of the system was an ultra cool dwarf star.  It was first spotted in 2016 by astronomers using the Trappist Telescope in Chile and so it was named, Trappist One.  The star appeared to be orbited by two earth sized planets. In the months that followed, a team of astronomers, lead by Michael Gillon from the University of Liege in Belgium, working with NASA’s Spitzer telescope, made a further incredible discovery.  What they found was described by Spitzer Centre manager Sean Carey, as the most exciting discovery in the history of the department.

What Gillon’s team uncovered was not two earth size planets but seven.  Furthermore, three of the planets were found to be occupying the crucial Goldilocks Zone, an area of orbit necessary for the potential for water to pool on a planet’s surface.  Such a discovery is the first time ever that so many potentially habitable planets had been found surrounding one single star.

Not only that, but the masses and radii of these specific planets mark them out as possibly the best ever to warrant further investigation for life or at the very least a habitable eco system that could one day be explored.

In the words of NASA’s associate administrator of the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen:

“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second earth is not just a matter of if, but when. What we have in this story is a major step forward towards answering one of the questions that is at the heart of so many of our philosophies…and that is, are we alone?”

Also on the panel at NASA’s February press conference was Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics MIT and author of the Seager equation.  The equation is considered by many to be an improved rendering of the famous Drake equation.

In 1961 the astronomer and physicist Dr. Frank Drake devised his equation to estimate the number of communicative extra-terrestrial civilisations that are likely to exist in the Milky Way galaxy.  Drake’s equation takes into account a number of variables such as the rate of star formation, the average number of planets that orbit stars as well as to which fraction exactly such planets might actually host sophisticated life forms.

Although the equation was intended partly as a point of discussion many critics were quick to argue that any attempt to estimate such a number would involve too big a margin of error to be reliable. However, a recent paper published by astrobiologists Adam Frank of the University of Rochester and Woodruff Sullivan of the University of Washington, offered an interesting new approach to the question.

Rather than trying to estimate the possible number of other extra-terrestrial civilisations in our galaxy, they instead asked what were the odds that the human race might be the only one.  Their answer equated to roughly a one in 60 billion chance.

So when you also consider that the Milky Way is thought to be only one of 2 trillion galaxies in the known observable universe, not only is it unfathomably unlikely that other civilisations don’t exist in the universe but it is entirely plausible that some may already have flourished and died out millions of times over before our own.

We might then wonder, much like the great physicist Enrico Fermi, if it is so likely that other sophisticated life forms exist out there, why have we never seen them?  To which many of course would reply, but we have.

The following story is considered by many UFOlogists to be amongst the best evidence of an alien visitation to our planet.  What happened exactly in the skies just off the coast of Melbourne Australia in 1978 has never been fully accounted for.  It is a mystery that remains to this day Unexplained.

It was love at first sight.  And as is often the case it was completely unplanned.  It was some time in March 1978 and Rhonda had only recently turned 16.  That night she was accompanying her neighbour’s son Peter to his regular Friday social event at the Flight16 Air Cadet headquarters in Maryborough, Melbourne.  Peter had only recently joined the Australian Air Training Corp and was eager to share his exciting new world with Rhonda.  What he hadn’t banked on was bumping into Fred.

Peter had been showing Rhonda round the company buildings when Fred stepped out of a nearby office and right into her path.  He was dark haired, handsome, and elegant in his steel blue uniform.  He introduced himself to Rhonda as Fred Valentich before turning back to Peter.  As the pair talked, Peter shifted uncomfortably whenever Fred’s eyes glanced away towards Rhonda.

The next week, Peter was overjoyed when Rhonda agreed to join him at the cadet’s Saturday night dance.  Sadly for Peter however, who Rhonda was really hoping to see that night, was Fred.  Sure enough, immediately after she arrived she spotted him holding court with some friends at the back of the room.  Unbeknownst to Rhonda, Fred too had been hoping all evening that the two of them might meet again.  There was only one problem, Peter.  

But Fred had a plan.

It was well known that Peter’s ill mother had given him a pager in case she might ever need him at short notice.

At some point in the night, after waiting for just the right moment, Fred slipped away from his table to use the pay phone outside.  Moments later he watched from the side of the hall as Peter received the message with a look of disappointment on his face.

Of course, Fred knew it was a cruel trick, but this was love and sometimes that’s all that matters.  Peter gestured his apologies to Rhonda and made his way out of the club. As Fred returned to the end of Rhonda’s table, he was almost certain he could see a look of relief cross her face.

It hadn’t gone unnoticed by Rhonda that as the evening progressed, Fred seemed to be making his way further and further up the table until finally he was sitting next to her.  And so they would remain for the rest of the night as the hours drifted by timelessly.

The following Monday, Fred met Rhonda’s parents and by the end of the week, the pair had agreed to make it official.  A few weeks later, Rhonda was introduced to Fred’s family at his home in Avondale Heights where she met and fell in love with his parents Alberta and Guido, his 12 year old brother Ricky and his two twin sisters, Olivia and Lara.

It was easy to see why Rhonda was so smitten by Fred.  He was fun and easy to be around, kind and well-mannered, not to mention dashing in his training corps uniform.  But there was one thing that would have to be accommodated.

It was Fred’s dream to be a commercial airline pilot and he dedicated himself to the task obsessively.  Every spare minute was spent at his flight school or with his nose buried inside one of his training textbooks – meeting up on weeknights was completely out of the question.

But come the weekend they were like any other teenage couple.  Fred wasn’t a big drinker but he loved being out with Rhonda.  Perhaps his favourite moments being the ones they spent on Mount Dandenong where they would just sit and take in the view as the evening sun gave way to the Melbourne city lights.

And when Fred got the chance to clock up more flight time, Rhonda was only too happy to accompany him. She loved the sensation of it, especially when the plane would break through into brilliant sunshine, the clouds stretching out below like a soft blanket, almost as if you could step out and walk across them.

And up there alone with Fred, she’d never felt safer, even when he would loop-the-loop on one of his acrobatic flights.

As Rhonda got to know Fred a little better, there was one thing that stood out more than anything.  It was his meticulous nature, whether it be making sure his car was running smoothly, the pride he took in how he dressed or most markedly, in his approach to his flight training.

By mid May, Fred had clocked over 140 hours and had graduated to a Class 4 Licence allowing him to fly at night.

By way of celebration, Fred took Rhonda on a 600-mile flight to Speers point in Newcastle to spend time with her favourite uncle Michael.  It had been the perfect day but the following morning as the pair prepared to fly home, Fred seemed concerned.  He was convinced that someone had tampered with the plane.  After a short time in the air, the column on the joystick seemed to be loosening.

Never one to leave anything to chance, Fred made an emergency descent towards Bankstown airport in Sydney.  Moments later, much to his shock a military helicopter appeared from nowhere and ordered them out of the sky.  In his eagerness to get the plane down, Fred had strayed marginally into a restricted airspace. Minutes later Fred and Rhonda touched down in Bankstown but the incident would inevitably go down as a blemish on Fred’s record. His abject disappointment in himself was a reminder to Rhonda just how seriously he took his training.

A few months later on September 17th, just over 400 miles south across the Bass straight to the far side of Tasmania, a lighthouse keeper spotted something strange in the sky.  The keeper worked at the Maatsuyker island lighthouse, located off the southern coast of mainland Tasmania.  He had just completed his evening rounds when he noticed an unfamiliar light in the sky. It was extremely bright and appeared to be half-moon in shape.

Moments after he spotted it, all the power in the lighthouse inexplicably cut out.  Bizarrely after rushing to fix the problem, the keeper found no blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers. Five minutes later the generator kicked into action and the power was restored.

The keeper returned to his lookout point to find the strange light still hanging in the night sky.  A closer look with binoculars revealed what appeared to be a small red dot in the middle of light, which seemed to move to the side as if the light was turning.

10 minutes later, the power cut out again and remained out for 15 minutes before it was finally restored, but again, with no obvious cause. Moments later, the lighthouse keeper watched as the strange light eventually began to shrink as if moving away from the island until it had completely disappeared...

Back in Melbourne a few weeks later on Friday 13th October, Fred and Rhonda drove to their favourite spot up in the Dandenong ranges.  That night they talked for hours, as down below the Yarra valley stretched out before them, blanketed by the warm luminescent glow of a setting spring sun.  Fred had never been more happy.  Having just turned twenty, he was passing his exams and was well on the way to becoming a commercial airline pilot and of course, he also had Rhonda. At some point, Fred pulled a box from his pocket and opened it to reveal a ring. Will you marry me he asked? 

They’d known each other little over six months but everything about this felt right, they laughed at the madness of it all.  Rhonda could barely hide her excitement as Fred slipped the friendship band onto her wedding ring finger.  Then for a second, she paused – not only was it Friday the 13th, but wasn’t it bad luck to place a friendship ring on the wedding ring finger? She thought.  But Fred didn’t believe in such things. Besides she would have the real thing soon enough, In the meantime, he asked that she keep it all secret until Rhonda’s 17th birthday in December. 

Rhonda didn’t see Fred for the rest of the week, preoccupied as he was with preparations for his latest milestone – a flight across open water. But on the Friday, Fred drove to Rhonda’s house and the pair made arrangements to meet for the flight the next day.  Rhonda agreed that she would meet him at the airport if she could get off work in time.  Before he left tat night, they kissed on the doorstep; a kiss that seemed to last a lifetime.

Next morning, on Saturday October 21st, Fred was up at 6am, buzzing with excitement as he went over and over the flight plans in his head.  After completing a shift at the Aussie Disposals store at 139 Puckle Street where he worked, Fred was soon on the freeway racing towards Moorabbin airport in South East Melbourne.

Fred had a three-hour lesson to negotiate before he could take his flight but as was often his way, he arrived early.  So he did what he always did in such circumstances, he took out his textbooks and revised until 1.30 when the class began.

Back in West Preston Rhonda was eagerly awaiting the end of her shift.  She’d arranged with her parents to drive her down to the airport after her shift but was being held up by a delayed co-worker. Rhonda had no choice but to cover until she arrived and as the minutes ticked by, Rhonda lost her ride. She would miss this flight but Fred would be home before long and after all, she had the evening’s dance to look forward to.

Back at Moorabbin, Fred was disappointed not to find Rhonda waiting for him by his car after the lesson.  In truth, the thought of flying over the water alone made him a little nervous.  But a quick meteorological briefing revealed that the weather would be on his side with sunset not due for another two hours he would have more than enough time to complete the journey before it got dark.

At 1723 hours, Fred lodged his flight plan at the Briefing Office.  He would fly south East along the coast to Cape Otway before heading south over the Bass Straight to King Island at the North of Tasmania, before returning back to Moorabbin airport.

There was still no sign of Rhonda so Fred decided to give her a few more minutes and headed off to grab some food in the meantime.  There was a new place that had just opened nearby that he liked to go.  And so it was, a short time later that Fred was sat in his car eating MacDonald’s and gazing out wistfully at the sea he was soon to cross.

When he finally made it back to the airport, with time running out and Rhonda still yet to arrive he, Fred had little choice but to set off alone.  After a further round of checks he jumped into the Cessna VH-DSJ, taxied the small plane to the edge of the runway before taking off into the early evening sky.

Back in West Preston, Rhonda had returned home and was getting herself ready for a night out with Fred, excited to hear all about his trip to King Island.  But by the time it had got to 8pm Rhonda was growing concerned that there had been no word from Fred.  Rhonda never made it to the dance but instead spent the night sat all made up on her bed staring out her window at the street below for any sign of her fiancée.

At some point she must have fallen asleep as she found herself being woken by the sound of the ABC news drifting in from her father’s bedroom. She couldn’t quite make out all of it, only that an unnamed pilot had gone missing over the Bass Strait.  Rhonda’s heart sunk deep into her chest.

After taking an age to get through to Moorabbin airport, when they eventually picked up, Rhonda received the devastating news. The missing pilot was Fred.

Over the next few days, wave after wave of search and rescue teams were dispatched unsuccessfully in the hunt for Fred’s missing plane.  For Rhonda and Fred’s family their grief would have been unimaginable.

For the authorities there were plainly only two likelihoods.  One, that Fred had got into some kind of difficulty, perhaps becoming disorientated over the water leading to a catastrophic pilot error.  Or, he had deliberately flown his plane into the sea.

Since Fred had been taking a routine path over a manageable stretch of water, as noted in the cause analysis report, it is most probable that the wreckage would have been sighted.  But the plane had disappeared without a trace.

And then something extraordinary came to light.

On Wednesday 25th October, Fred’s father Guido was invited to listen to the final recording of Fred’s ATC communications to formally identify the pilot.  As soon as the recording crackled to life, Guido’s heart broke for the thousandth time as the voice of his son came out of the speaker.  But what everybody in the room heard next chilled them all to the bone.

At 19:00 hours Fred reported arriving successfully over Cape Otway before heading south over the open water. The next communication was received at 19:06 hours.

Melbourne. This is Delta Sierra Juliet, is there any known traffic below five thousand?

Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.

It seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.

What type of aircraft is it?

I cannot affirm, it has four bright...it seems to me like landing lights.

Melbourne this is Delta Sierra Juliet, the aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.

Roger and it is a large aircraft, confirm?

Unknown due to the speed it’s travelling is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?

Delta Sierra Juliet, no known aircraft in the vicinity.

Melbourne, it’s approaching now from due east towards me.  It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me two, three, times at a time at speeds I could not identify.

Delta Sierra Juliet and confirm you cannot identify the aircraft?

Affirmative – it’s not an aircraft – it’s a long shape, I cannot identify more than that, it has such speed…what I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me.  It’s got a green light and a sort of metallic, like it’s all shiny on the outside.  It’s just vanished!

Delta Sierra Juliet, confirm that the aircraft has vanished?

Ah, it’s now approaching from the southwest.

Roger, what are your intentions?

My intentions are to go to King Island, ah Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again, it’s hovering and it’s not an aircraft.

And then there is nothing. Melbourne attempts communication again but after 17 seconds of dead air, at 1912 hours, Fred’s radio falls silent.

Within days, Fred’s gripping final transmission made its way to the press.  Before long, the papers were awash with speculation concerning Fred’s fatal encounter with a UFO.  And then something else emerged.  Six weeks previously, Sgt Jack Woodward of Currie police on King Island, had received a caller concerning ‘strange lights’ that had appeared off the north of the island.  A nursing sister at King Island Hospital had seem them too with two other witness going as far as to write into the King Island news on September 20th, “We are writing to your paper to see if anyone other than ourselves has seen any sightings of strange moving lights in the sky”.

The department of transport were quick to quash the rumours with one spokesman suggesting that if Fred’s plane had inverted he would have seen light from Cape Otway and King Island houses reflected on cloud cover above him.  But not only were there no clouds in the sky that night but, as the spokesman was forced to admit, the conditions were near perfect and would have afforded Fred almost unlimited vision.

Reports from Fred’s friends and acquaintances began to emerge.  They revealed a sober, studious and diligent flight student with a steely determination to succeed.  With one friend noting that Fred was never prone to panic, as Rhonda had also attested during her many hours of flying with him.  Fred’s instructors Warren Dunlop and Martin Dunlop described him as sincere and sensible, a little quiet at first but quick to open up once you got to know him.

For Alberta and Guido, the evidence spoke for itself and with the papers more than happy to exploit their grief for the cosmic speculation there was little room for anything else.  As for sixteen-year-old Rhonda, she had barely had time to grieve such was the incessant hounding of the press.  At one point she even fled to a motel in Cape Otway only to find a crowd of journalists waiting for her in the foyer. And the truth was there really was nothing more that she could tell them.

After two weeks the search for Fred was called off.  However, although they may not have found the wreckage, in the subsequent widening of the investigation something new was about to come to light.  It seemed that Fred had not been entirely honest with his Parents or Rhonda.

On November 1st, the investigative team received a letter from Captain Edwin Robert Barnes a former tutor of Fred’s.

In 1976 Fred had failed in his attempt to join the Royal Australian Air Force. It was not entirely unexpected since not only had Fred left school at 16, but his academic record had been poor.  But Fred would not be deterred and he resolved that whatever he lacked in intellect he would work ferociously hard to make up for in effort.  Although he would never realise his dream of making the air force, he could still mike it as a commercial airline pilot. 

Sadly, this ambition also hit a snag when in 1977 Fred sat for and failed all 5 of his commercial pilots licence theory exams.  It was at this point that an instructor, impressed by Fred’s determination, recommended that Captain Barne’s help tutor him through his re-sits.

In Barne’s letter, he speaks with great warmth and affection about the boy who having not made it to the air force, nonetheless “attended squadron headquarters in a civilian capacity, working without pay or allowances until accepted into squadron staff as an airman”. A boy who despite failing his exams, was a battler with the determination and stability to achieve his goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot.

Fred re-sat his exams in July of 1978 and Barnes was overjoyed when Fred called him up in mid-September to tell him with great excitement that he had finally passed.  Only it was a lie, a lie that Fred had been hiding from not only his beloved tutor but also his family and Rhonda.

Suddenly, some of the more confusing aspects of Fred’s final days had taken on a different shape.  Why he had proposed to Rhonda on Friday the 13th a week before the day they regularly celebrated as a monthly anniversary.  Why, if he was intending to land at King Island he hadn’t requested landing lights to be turned on, or why he told Rhonda that he’d be back to take her out but told his father that he wouldn’t return till 10pm. 

Is it possible that, rather than having been plucked from the sky by an unknown entity, Fred had in a sense already been taken away some time ago, by something else, equally intangible?

In the end had this young man, whose only dream was to prove to the world that he had what it took to be a pilot, finally been broken by the crushing realisation that no matter how hard he tried, his head would never match up to his heart.  A young man too pained to reveal the truth to his family and Rhonda to whom he felt he had promised so much.

© Richard MacLean Smith


1.    Original Case Files for disappearance of Fred Valentich available at National Archives of Australia, type VH-DSJ in the search box at: http://www.naa.gov.au/

2.    Basterfield, K. (2013), The Valentich Radio Transmissions, UFOs Scientific Research, http://ufos-scientificresearch.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-valentich-radio-transmissions.html

3.    Dunning, B. (2013), The Disappearance of Fred Valentich, Skeptoid, https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4385

4.    Kemp, M (2012), Frederick Valentich – Truth Was Out There After All, Sott.net, https://www.sott.net/article/247700-Frederick-Valentich-Truth-Was-Out-There-After-All

5.    Rhonda Rushton interviewed by Victorian UFO Action, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIyMpblIg88&t=719s

6.    NASA Press Release announcing discovery of 7 Earth-Size planets, https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around


S02 Episode 3 Extra: 6EQUJ5

Welcome to Unexplained Extra with me Richard MacLean Smith.

For the weeks in between episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.

In last week’s episode, The Final Flight, we looked at the tragic story of Australian Training Corp pilot Fred Valentich and his mysterious disappearance one evening in October 1978. Fred had been attempting a solo flight across the Bass Straight, just to the south of Melbourne, Australia, when he vanished without a trace.

In a famous final communication between Fred and Air Traffic Control it appeared that Fred was being tracked by a large UFO just prior to his disappearance.  If, as some believe, Fred had in fact fabricated the event, it has been suggested that the Australian release of Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in March of that year, may have served as a possible source of inspiration.

Yet, only six months previously something far more fantastical had occurred that would no doubt have been noted by Fred, a young man with a keen interest in UFOs and the hunt for Alien life.

The Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is the term given to humanity’s collective attempts to find signs of intelligent life in the universe.  Of course we may always have looked to the night sky and wondered whether or not we were alone, but it wasn’t until a remarkable discovery confirmed in 1887 that we began to conceive of a way in which we might actually begin to find out. 

In 1864, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed his groundbreaking theory that electricity, magnetism and light were in fact all manifestations of the same phenomenon.

His findings, published as a paper titled, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field marked a paradigm shift in our understanding of the laws of the universe, but also, gave us the means with which to listen to it.

For it was in Maxwell’s understanding of electromagnetism that the concept of radio waves, themselves a type of electromagnetic radiation, was first theorised.

However, as is often the case, the maths would predate the technology needed to prove the theory by some years.  In the end, it wasn’t until 1887, over twenty years later, that German physicist Heinrich Hertz, working in his lab at the Karlsruhe Institute in Germany generated the radio waves that finally proved Maxwell’s theory to be correct.

Now for the first time ever, we had the ability to send and receive communications wirelessly over seemingly vast distances.  A decade later Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi would pioneer the first practical radio transmitters.

Owing to Maxwell’s initial discovery it was well understood that, since radio waves were a form of electromagnetic radiation, the earth should in theory be bombarded by signals from any number of celestial sources throughout the universe.  However, after the discovery of the ionosphere in 1902 most physicists assumed that any radio transmissions from outside the atmosphere would be instantly deflected back into space.

And so it was in 1933, when Karl Guthe Jansky, who was working for Bell Laboratories in Holmdel New Jersey, made an extraordinary discovery.  Having missed out to AT & T in the race to build the first transatlantic telephone communications, Bell Labs were hoping to improve on the system with the use of short radio waves.  The only problem was trying to figure out a way to stop the pesky static from interfering with the transmissions.

It was Jansky’s job to try and determine once and for all just where exactly the static was coming from. A short time later he had his answer, sort of.  Two sources were found to be coming from either nearby or far off thunderstorms, but the third source was a steady consistent hiss of unknown origin.  

The hiss would rise and fall in a period approximating a standard rotation of the earth, so it seemed reasonable to assume it was generated by the sun. But the curiously the signal seemed to repeat just four minutes shy of 24 hours.

What Jansky eventually discovered was that the signal wasn’t coming from the sun at all, it was coming from somewhere in the middle of the Milky Way.

Early in the twentieth century a number of scientists including Nicola Tesla and Lord William Kelvin had speculated on the use of radio waves to contact life forms on other planets.

But it wasn’t until astronomer Frank Drake’s 1960 project Ozma, that scientists took seriously the possibility that other civilisations might in fact be trying to contact us, and may have been doing so for quite some time.  Drake’s project is widely considered the birth of the modern SETI movement and inspired many others to pick up the mantle.

But such projects require inordinate amounts of ambition and money.  Fortunately it was the 1960s and certainly in the case of the United States, never before or since had so much been invested in space exploration.

It was a remarkably complex decade for the young nation in which a new soul appeared to be awakening embodied by the civil rights movement and the social optimism of Jack Kennedy’s government.  It was an optimism that grew in spite of less palatable agendas but ultimately one that could not drown out the sound of distant bombs coming from the Far East.

It was a nation in one sense blossoming in colour and in another bleeding to death on the jungle floor of Vietnam.  A nation drafting disproportionately poor or black soldiers to fight in unknown places, and yet, at the same time a nation inspiring the world as it stepped forth from the Apollo 11 Lunar module to plant a foot on the dusty surface of the moon.

The space race may have begun as a cynical and divisive battle to demonstrate economic primacy, but as Neil Armstrong emerged from NASA’s spacecraft on July 21st 1969, what the world saw was nothing but a human being alone in the vastness of space, unfettered by politics or religion, his face and skin colour hidden under a hulking, cumbersome space suit.

And in that moment, no country had ever before created an image of such profound symbolism.  A moment to obliterate what divides as, revealing instead that above everything else, humanity was all of us.  In that moment, we were all Neil Armstrong taking one small step for humans and one giant leap for human kind.

And then almost overnight, the funding dried up.  The installation of the Nixon administration in 1969 brought a raft of ideological changes, many of which were at odds with the scientific community.   By 1973, President Nixon had not only abolished the post of scientific advisor but also the entire office of science and technology.  By the end of the year, spending on non-defence based research and development had been reduced by a third.

As a result, the national science foundation was forced to make drastic cuts to a number of research projects including one particularly ambitious operation that had been running out of Perkins Observatory at Ohio State University since 1965.

The project was the brainchild of American physicist John D. Kraus who in 1955 proposed the modest plan to conduct a radio survey of the entire universe.  Two years later construction began on a structure of truly of epic proportions.

Formed of one flat tiltable reflector measuring 340 ft. by 100 ft. in height, a fixed curved reflector measuring 360ft by 70ft in height and a vast aluminium ground covering, by the time it was completed five years later the telescope covered an area the size of three football fields. Fittingly it was given the name Big Ear. 

The telescope was turned on in 1965. Eight years later, Big Ear had recorded 70% of the sky and picked up over 20,000 radio wave emitting objects, some of which had come from the furthest reaches of the universe with a great number of them previously unknown signals.  But in 1972, owing to the funding cuts, the United States Congress voted to end the Ohio Sky Survey.

Perversely, the decision was a blessing in disguise for SETI when it was decided to instead use the enormous telescope to focus solely on listening out for signs of Alien life.

In 1973, the telescope was then pitched specifically at an area of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the Hydrogen Line.  The line refers to the wave frequency, roughly 1420 MHz, of neutral hydrogen atoms - the most abundant substance in space.   In 1959 astrophysicists Phillip Morrison and Frank Drake reasoned that any advanced civilisation would recognise the Hydrogen Line as the best frequency band to omit interstellar beacons.   And so, once it was set, the telescope would remain, scouring the universe with each rotation of the earth, day after day picking up the same, familiar signals.

But then, something extraordinary happened.

On Monday August 15th, 1977, 47-year-old SETI volunteer Jerry Ehman, finished his latest shift and locked up the lab for the evening.

Later that night, with Jerry tucked up in bed, back at the lab lights blinked in the darkness and cooling fans whirred as the printer, with its relentless metallic rattling, spewed out the data.  Minute after minute, hour after hour, the familiar rhythms played out as the telescope’s signals were analysed and processed before appearing as alphanumeric code on the sprocket fed paper.

But then at approximately 10:16pm Eastern Standard Time, something upset the rhythm – an unusual signal that lasted no more than 72 seconds before it was gone.  Seconds later, as the lights continued to blink and the fans continued to hum, the printer settled back into its familiar metallic rhythm.

It would be four days before Jerry would make it back to the observatory to analyse the data.  On August 19th just after dinner, Jerry made his way down to the lab.   Moments later he found himself staring down at a computer print out that was almost impossible to believe.

The data is printed in columns with each of the first 50 columns showing the intensity of a signal in relation to specific bands of frequency.  The intensity was recorded on a scale of 1-9 with anything larger being represented by letters of the alphabet in an ascending scale from A to Z.  Ordinarily one would expect the read out to display mainly blank spaces, where no intensity is recorded or 1s and 2s for low intensity.  But when Jerry looked at the printout from 10:16pm on Monday August 15th his jaw dropped.  In a sea of blanks, 1s and 2s, standing out by a mile was the sequence 6EQUJ5.

Without even thinking, Jerry grabbed a red pen, circled the numbers and scrawled the word Wow in the margin.  Not only had such a sequence never been seen before, the value U alone had never before been recorded by the telescope.  The signal was later discovered to be coming from the direction of the constellation of Sagittarius, over 200 light years away.

To this day, the origin of the signal remains a mystery.

As for Big Ear, in 1998 the radio telescope was ordered to be dismantled by the landowners to make way for a 381-lot development and a nine-hole golf course.

© Richard MacLean Smith


1.    Tate, K (2015), SETI: All About the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence, Space.com, http://www.space.com/30043-seti-search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence-infographic.html

2.    Big Ear Memorial Website, http://www.bigear.org/

3.    Reneke, D (n/a),  Wow - The Big Ear, DavidReneke.com, http://www.davidreneke.com/wow-the-big-ear/

4.    Pre-History of Radio Astronomy, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, http://www.nrao.edu/whatisra/hist_prehist.shtml

5.    Redpath, M, (2012), Karl Jansky: The Father of Radio Astronomy, ArmaghPlanet.com, http://www.armaghplanet.com/blog/karl-jansky-the-father-of-radio-astronomy.html