OSU loses telescope
due to lack of funds
By Kim Chatfield
January 2, 1998
Wow! Ohio State lost what may have been its only "contact" to extraterrestrial life.
After a month of inactivity, The Big Ear, OSU`s radio telescope, closed Jan. 1.
In 1977, The Big Ear detected the first signal believed to have come from other intelligent beings, said Bob Dixon, assistant director of the telescope.
The signal became known as The Wow Signal after Jerry Ehman, a volunteer at the telescope, wrote "WOW!" in the margin of a printout of the telescope's readings.
"The signal was clearly of intelligent origin," he said.
The television series "The X-Files" had an episode based on the signal, Dixon said.
"[The episode] was exactly correct," he said.
OSU was leasing the land in Delaware, Ohio which The Big Ear was built, he said.
"[The landowners] put pressure on the university not to renew the lease," he said
"We had to move out all the equipment we wanted to save," he said.
The Big Ear was first used in 1962 to search the sky for natural sources of radio signals like stars and galaxies.
"We made at that time the most detailed maps of the sky that had ever been made," Dixon said.
The Big Ear continued to have the most detailed maps of the sky until research funds for the telescope were cut in 1973.
"We had no money to pay staff, but the observatory cost almost nothing to run," he said.
A group of volunteers including OSU faculty, staff and students and non-university volunteers ran the telescope, he said.
The telescope was no longer used to look for natural signals but for messages from extraterrestrial civilizations, he said.
"Up until that time people had talked about it but nobody had actually started such a search," Dixon said.
Ehman said The Big Ear could still be useful.
Of the 20,000 radio signals recorded at The Big Ear, half had never been seen before, he said.
"I'm very sad about the whole thing...but none of us are in a position to do much," Ehman said.
Ken Ayotte, a freshman majoring in physics, volunteered at The Big Ear for seven years.
"It's kind of a shame we are not going to be using it anymore," Ayotte said. "A lot of discoveries could still be made."
Ayotte said the things he learned through his volunteer work at The Big Ear helped him with the amateur radio telescopes he built at his home.
"Not a lot of people knew the instrument was there and functioning," he said. "OSU should have been a lot more involved in it."
OSU will not replace The Big Ear, Dixon said. OSU has, however, given Dixon a space at the satellite communications facility on west campus, he said.
Dixon plans to build another telescope at that site. Argus, the new radio telescope, will be smaller and less powerful than the Big Ear, Dixon said.
Argus should be completed in a year, he said. Like The Big Ear, it will also be used to search the skies for intelligent signals.
By Bob Dixon
From the OSU Lantern
Thank you for publishing the story about the abandonment of the OSU Radio Telescope in Monday's edition. It is basically a good article. But I'd like to correct a few misimpressions your readers might get from the article.
Headline - "OSU loses telescope due to lack of funds" Actually, the Radio Observatory has more funds now than at any time in the past few years, having just received a new grant. The reason OSU lost the telescope is as stated in the article. The landowners wanted the Observatory out, and the OSU administration chose not to fight.
"After a month of inactivity, The Big Ear, OSU's radio telescope, closed Jan. 1." Actually, there was intense activity in the last month, which consisted of packing up and moving the equipment to the new location.
"In 1977, The Big Ear detected the first signal believed to have come from other intelligent beings, said Bob Dixon, assistant director of the telescope." This exaggerates what I said. I said it MAY have come from other intelligent beings, or it could have come from our own civilization's secret activities, and that we will never know which it was.
"The telescope was no longer used to look for natural signals but for messages from extraterrestrial civilizations, he said." Actually, we have continued to look for natural signals at the same time as we searched for signals from other civilizations.
"Ken Ayotte, a freshman majoring in physics, volunteered at The Big Ear for seven years." And he continues to be a volunteer at our new location.
"Dixon plans to build another telescope at that site. Argus, the new radio telescope, will be smaller and less powerful than the Big Ear, Dixon said." Less powerful only in its ability to receive very weak signals. But much more powerful in its ability to receive signals simultaneously from all directions.
"Argus should be completed in a year, he said. Like The Big Ear, it will also be used to search the skies for intelligent signals." Perhaps eventually. But for the forseeable future, Argus will be used for applications such as tracking aircraft, spacecraft and thunderstorms.
Dr. Robert Dixon