SETI@home ramps up to analyze more data in search of extraterrestrial intelligence

January 2, 2008

The longest-running search for radio signals from alien civilizations is getting a burst of new data from an upgraded Arecibo telescope, which means the SETI@home project needs more desktop computers to help crunch the data.

Since SETI@home launched eight years ago, the project based at the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory has signed up more than 5 million interested volunteers and boasts the largest community of dedicated users of any Internet computing project: 170,000 devotees on 320,000 computers.

Yet, new and more sensitive receivers on the world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and better frequency coverage are generating 500 times more data for the project than before. The SETI@home software has been upgraded to deal with this new data as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) enters a new era and offers a new opportunity for those who want to help find other civilizations in the universe.

"The next generation SETI@home is 500 times more powerful then anything anyone has done before," said project chief scientist Dan Werthimer. "That means we are 500 times more likely to find ET than with the original SETI@home."

According to project scientist Eric Korpela, the new data amounts to 300 gigabytes per day, or 100 terabytes (100,000 gigabytes) per year, about the amount of data stored in the U.S. Library of Congress. "That's why we need all the volunteers," he said. "Everyone has a chance to be part of the largest public participation science project in history."

The 1,000-foot diameter Arecibo dish, which fills a valley in Puerto Rico, is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center operated by Cornell University with funds from the National Science Foundation. Since 1992, Werthimer and his team have piggybacked on radio astronomy observations at Arecibo to record signals from space and analyze them for patterns that could indicate they were transmitted by an intelligent civilization.

When the team's incoming data overwhelmed its ability to analyze it, the scientists conceived a distributed computing project to harness many computers into one big supercomputer to do the analysis. Since SETI@home was launched, other distributed computing projects have arisen, from folding@home to predict the three-dimensional tangle of a protein to the newly-launched cosmology@home to model possible universes. Most are now on a platform called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), which was developed by SETI@home's director David Anderson so that the various projects could share resources.

"There are now 42 projects on BOINC, and, until now, there has been enough computing power to go around," Werthimer said.

What triggered the new flow of data was the addition of seven new receivers at Arecibo, which now allow the telescope to record radio signals from seven regions of the sky simultaneously instead of just one. With greater sensitivity and the ability to detect the polarization of the radio signals, plus 40 times more frequency coverage, Arecibo is set to survey the sky for new radio sources.

These improvements also prime the telescope for an improved search for intelligent signals from space.

"The multiple receivers help us weed out interference better and make us less susceptible to thinking that things terrestrial are extraterrestrial," Werthimer said.

Werthimer noted that, despite the fact that UC Berkeley has been analyzing radio signals from space since 1978 on various telescopes, no telltale signals from an intelligent civilization have yet been found.

"Earthlings are just getting started looking at the frequencies in the sky; we're looking only at the cosmically brightest sources, hoping we are scanning the right radio channels," he said. "The good news is, we're entering an era when we will be able to scan billions of channels. Arecibo is now optimized for this kind of search, so if there are signals out there, we or our volunteers will find them."

Source: University of California - Berkeley

Explore further: Scientists discover elusive gamma-ray pulsar with distributed computing project

Related Stories

Football shaped asteroid observed by students at NAIC/NRAO

July 16, 2015

Images of the near-Earth asteroid 2015 HM10 were captured by students and researchers participating in the NAIC/NRAO 8th Single-Dish Radio Astronomy School as it passed by Earth on Wednesday, July 8. The asteroid, coincidentally ...

The planet Mercury

August 6, 2015

Mercury is the closest planet to our sun, the smallest of the eight planets, and one of the most extreme worlds in our solar systems. Named after the Roman messenger of the gods, the planet is one of a handful that can be ...

Will SETI's unprecedented new program finally find E.T.?

August 4, 2015

Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake and dozens of journalists gathered at the Royal Society in London last week to hear astronomers announce a ground-breaking new project to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life called "Breakthrough ...

Recommended for you

Astronomers detect the farthest galaxy yet with Keck telescope

September 4, 2015

A team of Caltech researchers that has spent years searching for the earliest objects in the universe now reports the detection of what may be the most distant galaxy ever found. In an article published August 28, 2015 in Astrophysical ...

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

out7x
1 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2008
Dr. Steve Greer, M.D., says SETI already found intelligent signals from outside our solar system. Anyone agree?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.