In the past few years, scientists have found tantalizing evidence of a once-watery Mars, new Earth-like planets and evidence on Earth of strange creatures that live in the most extreme conditions imaginable, including strong acids, boiling heat, frigid cold and airless subterranean pockets.
In other words, the idea that life exists elsewhere has never seemed more plausible. If the thought excites you, you can volunteer your home computer's idle time in the search for intelligent life in outer space. If extraterrestrial civilizations are trying to contact us with radio signals, this mission is the best chance we have of hearing them.
University of California-Berkeley's eight-year-old SETI@home project uses the computing power of 320,000 individual desktop computers to crunch data. Now, with 500-times more data streaming in from an upgraded Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico enough data to fill the Library of Congress each year scientists are seeking more volunteers willing to link their computers to the distributed super computer.
"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."
"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," Werthimer added. "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."
Here's how the UC Berkeley describes parts of the project:
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.
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.
For information, see SETI@home.
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