Using your computer to process signals from outer-space

By Mark O’Neill

One of my little quirks (some would say “signs of insanity”) is that I believe in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. I cried my eyes out at E.T, I’ve seen all the episodes countless times of the X Files and Star Trek, and I am a firm believer that we are not the only life-forms out there. OK, you can stop laughing now. I’m serious. Who are we to believe that we are the only signs of life in the galaxy?

I’ve been meaning for some time to post on this subject but it wasn’t until I was reading a Time magazine article this afternoon about Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s project called the “Allen Telescope Array”, that I remembered that I had still to blog about one of the coolest sites on the internet – the SETI project (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence).

So what is SETI? Well, I can’t say it any better than the SETI website itself :

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific area whose goal is to detect intelligent life outside Earth. One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

Radio telescope signals consist primarily of noise (from celestial sources and the receiver’s electronics) and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. Modern radio SETI projects analyze the data digitally. More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. Radio SETI, therefore, has an insatiable appetite for computing power.

Previous radio SETI projects have used special-purpose supercomputers, located at the telescope, to do the bulk of the data analysis. In 1995, David Gedye proposed doing radio SETI using a virtual supercomputer composed of large numbers of Internet-connected computers, and he organized the SETI@home project to explore this idea.

So in other words, instead of one big super-computer processing all those radio signals from space, you can volunteer some of your computer run-time to help process some SETI information. All the volunteers are hooked up via the internet and processed information is passed back again to SETI for further analysis.

Yes, that’s right. You too can be Jodie Foster in Contact!