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SETI: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

by Katherine Noyes
The Challenge

SETI,  or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is a scientific effort aimed at determining if there is intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth. With your own computer and Internet connection, you can help SETI scientists around the world in their efforts to answer this age-old question.

Searches for extraterrestrial intelligence can take many forms, but most use highly sensitive radio telescopes to "listen" for particular types of sounds emanating from outer space. Computing power is often a big limitation in SETI efforts, because the enormous volumes of extraterrestrial data that get recorded by those radio telescopes must then be analyzed by computers — a capacity-intensive process that challenges the capabilities of even the most powerful supercomputers.

That's where volunteerism comes in. Through a SETI effort known as SETI@home that's based on distributed computing, volunteers with Internet-connected computers use a free, downloadable screensaver program to help shoulder some of the processing burden. The SETI screensaver software retrieves some of the recorded extraterrestrial sounds via the Internet, analyzes them and sends the results to SETI researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. What's amazing is that all this happens when the computer is not being otherwise used; when the user returns to their computer, the screensaver instantly gets out of the way and postpones its analysis until the next idle time.

In this way, the collective effort of more than 5 million computer users in more than 200 countries have donated the processing equivalent of the world's second largest supercomputer, thereby dramatically expanding the SETI effort. In fact, the success of the SETI effort in using distributed computing has inspired many other such volunteer-based projects, including also one to discover new celestial bodies in our galaxy, and another to discover astronomical objects via their gravitational waves.

Since its founding in 1999, the SETI@home effort has not found anything conclusive, but a promising signal, dubbed "Radio source SHGb02+14a," was uncovered in September 2004. Just think: When the next "call from E.T." comes in, it might be your computer that finds it!

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  • Download the SETI@home program and let it run while you are getting coffee, having lunch, or sleeping. Participants receive "credit" for the processing time their computers provide, and you can even join a team of participants and "race" with other teams to see who provides the most processing.
  • Try some other extraterrestrial-related distributed computing volunteer projects, such as PlanetQuest or Einstein@home. Or, check out some of the many other volunteer-based distributed computing projects, and start using your computer's downtime to make a difference!

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