SETI@Home Enlists Volunteers in Searching The Universe

SETI@home, sometimes referred to as SETI at Home or Project SETI, is a project that makes an ingenious use of individual computers and the Internet to analyze data from outer space. Conceived at UC Berkeley, SETI@home integrates millions of personal computers into a cohesive project that otherwise would not exist.

SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, continues to draw interest from around the world in an effort to open a path of technological communications with other beings. Without SETI@home, the massive amounts of data collected from the skies would take decades to analyze.

While the basic concept is simple, the actual processes necessary to achieve it are quite involved, both logistically and computationally. An analyzer collects information from a telescope and transfers it to a central database. From there, chunks of data go out to volunteer computers for breakdown. The results are then transferred back to the central database for further analysis.

A Brief History of SETI@home
The SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emission from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations) analyzer lies at the heart of the data gathering system necessary to make SETI@home possible. It piggybacks onto actions of the world’s largest radio telescope at the Arecibo Conservatory in Puerto Rico. As the telescope scans the skies, SERENDIP collects galactic transmissions at a specified frequency for further study. Within this range, it’s much simpler to pick out unusual hydrogen-based blips while discarding “common” earthly noise.

SETI, in several forms, has been around for many decades, as various researchers have come up with ways to effectively collect data from numerous telescopes. However, computers were never powerful enough to dig deeply into the information collected. If they could, it would have taken many years to compile and analyze their data. In fact, even today’s supercomputers cannot break this information down in an efficient manner.

In 1995, following widespread access to the Internet, a few Berkeley computer scientists formed a plan. David Gedye, David Anderson and Dan Werthimer, a SETI scientist, recognized that a few thousand individual computers could break down the information in a much shorter time. Through the auspices of The Planetary Society and the Carl Sagan Fund for the Future, they received $100,000 to develop a software program that could run while a computer was not in use.

SETI@home went public in 1999. Instead of a few thousand interested computer users, millions from around the world signed on.

Basics of SETI@home
Home and work computers, when not in use, typically revert to screensavers. They are still active, however, even in idle mode. It’s during this time that SETI@home software goes to work. A specially designed program in the form of a graphical screensaver takes the distributed chunks of data from SERENDIP and breaks them down. When completed, it automatically sends it back to the base team in Berkeley. The process does not interfere with regular computer use, as bits of data are small and don’t require much time for processing.

To ensure greater accuracy, the same bits of information go to more than one computer. If results appear “off,” the same packets go out to additional computers. SETI@home Classic was the debut program.

Enhanced computer systems and attempts at individual tweaking drove the SETI@home team to develop a more secure module. By 2004, project director David Anderson introduced a new, easy-to-use interface. Known popularly as BOINC, the Berkeley Online Infrastructure for Network Computing took SETI@home to advanced levels of data breakdown and safety.

Even better, it could be adjusted to fit into a host of other projects where volunteer “distributed” computer networks could compile information beyond SETI@home. Individuals who had signed up for the SETI project could also participate in other efforts on the same machine.

Two years later, the SETI@home enhanced version provided even greater sensitivity for analyzing data streams with wider coverage. Drawbacks still include the inability to identify unusual readings in real time.

Participating in SETI@home
Participation in SETI@home involves a simple download. Individuals of any age can use the software, but younger children should always seek a parent’s permission. You must own the computer or have permission to run the program. After creating an account and setting up a user name, you’ll also provide information on the system you own. That will help determine the type of information that your computer can process.

While some individuals choose to work in teams, members can belong to only one group at a time. At any time, users are free to easily withdraw from the program. The main SETI@home Web site is user-friendly and easy to navigate.

Participants are proud of the ability to contribute valuable information and also enjoy the special camaraderie with other SETI@home members around the world.

The Future of SETI@home
To date, SETI@home has yet to discover any extraterrestrial signals or alien civilizations. Yet, the possibilities of detecting them through radio waves remains the most viable way of making contact, if such life forces do indeed exist. The SETI@home team reports an occasional and interesting signal strength that, upon further examination, comes from an identifiable earthly source.

The project has received no government assistance, relying instead on private funding. In addition, the Arecibo telescope is losing funding annually. Without a rise in contributions, it may shut down within a few short years. In the past, SERENDIP has resided on other telescopes, but the Puerto Rico location provides the greatest opportunity to date.

Researchers and enthusiasts alike continue to believe that, in the wide expanse of the universe, it’s very possible that life exists elsewhere. Volunteer contributions, such as the SETI@home project, may make it possible to make that acquaintance.