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SETI@home, UC Berkeley's search for extraterrestrial life, celebrates first anniversary, is named finalist in Computerworld Smithsonian Awards
26 May 2000

By Robert Sanders , Media Relations

Berkeley - The University of California, Berkeley's SETI@home project, which just breezed past its first anniversary with more than 2 million subscribers looking for intelligent signals from space, is one of five finalists in the science category of the 2000 Computerworld Smithsonian Awards.

The awards are given each year to visionary projects and people in 10 separate categories, ranging from science and technology to arts and entertainment. The winner in each category will be announced June 5 at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

SETI@home was launched May 17, 1999. Within 48 hours, some 200,000 people had downloaded the software to participate in UC Berkeley's search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The software acts like a screen saver, launching when the computer is idle to analyze a chunk of data in search of intelligent radio signals from space. Once the analysis is complete, the computer connects to the internet, returns the analyzed data and retrieves a new chunk of data to chew on.

In the past year, users of the SETI@home software have contributed more than 280,000 years of free computing time. A group at Sun Microsystems, dubbed SETI@sun, contributed more than 520 years. Sun has been one of SETI@home's major sponsors, donating the server computers that send out work units to subscribers. The other major sponsors are the Planetary Society, which provided early seed money, and the University of California's Digital Media Innovation Program.

"Thanks to people around the world, we have built our planet's largest supercomputer," said project scientist Dan Werthimer.

"We seem to have benefited from an obvious public fascination with everything related to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), UFOs and the X-Files," said project director David Anderson.

Werthimer and UC Berkeley colleagues operate several ongoing SETI projects, including the 21-year-old SERENDIP project (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations), whose newest instrument, SERENDIP IV, provides the data for SETI@home. The project was designed in part as an experiment in "distributed computing" - a way of breaking down a problem requiring lots of computation into small chunks that can be done by many small computers distributed anywhere in the world. The SETI@home project is the first distributed computing project to allow the general public the opportunity to participate in important research.

To date, the peak signals plucked from the data have all been terrestrial radio pollution rather than extraterrestrial messages. The search has only begun, though.

"Right now, Earthlings are just getting in the game," Werthimer said. "In the past 20 years we have made great progress, from being able to scan 100 radio bands at once to scanning 100 million. If we can improve the technology in the next 20 years by a factor of a million or a billion, then we'll have a good chance of detecting another civilization's radio signals, if they're out there."

As more data comes in on more and more frequencies, distributed computing allows the team to keep pace. Computers will continue to get faster, users will upgrade, and SETI@home gets faster analysis without having to invest in a supercomputer.

"The good news is, we're limited by computing power, and that's always getting better," Werthimer said.

To improve the search, Werthimer also is exploring the option of collecting data from a radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. This would complement the northern sky data coming from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

Nevertheless, Anderson said the current phase of the project is scheduled to wind down in a year's time, primarily because the Arecibo telescope will have scanned the same area of the sky three to four times, which is sufficient for now. Once that data has been analyzed for pulsed, radar-like signals as well as continuous beacons, little more information can be squeezed from it.

Assuming Anderson and Werthimer can raise additional money - SETI@home operation now costs about $400,000 per year - they hope to extend the project indefinitely with data from improved instruments or other areas of the sky.

"It's clear that there are lots of users who are desperate to continue looking for intelligent life in the universe," Anderson said.

The project was launched three years ago with the Planetary Society, in cooperation with Paramount Pictures, providing $100,000 for development of the publicly available software. Sun Microsystems also donated computing equipment, and the University of California provided matching funds of $180,000 from its Digital Media Innovation Program. Other sponsors include Fuji Film Computer Products, Quantum Corp., Informix and The SETI Institute.


The SETI@home Web site is http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/.


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