Help Find ET with Seti@Home and Your Own Computer

August 6, 2014
Adam McEnroe

In the pristine wilderness of Northern California 42 dishes in the Allen Telescope Array–a group of centimeter-wave radio telescopes–constantly scan the heavens. Built on the Large Number, Small Diameter theory of radio telescopes, the ATA is constantly listening to the stars for the faintest sign that extraterrestrial life is sending out signals.

Seti@Home Screenshot

Seti@Home Screenshot

The ATA is just one of several large dishes, or dish arrays, around the world listening to the skies. It’s just a matter of time before they hear something, and finally prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In 1960, Frank Drake was the first astronomer to begin a formal search for intelligent communication from space. At the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, Drake used a 25-meter dish to tune in to two stars: Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. Scanning for 6 hours a day for several months, the project was unsuccessful.

Drake Equation

Despite the failure, the next year Drake organized a group of leading scientists to expand the search for extraterrestrial life, nicknamed SETI. Drake developed the famed Drake Equation, the first tangible effort to break down the search with a scientific approach:

N = R x fp x ne x fl x fi xfc x L

The Drake Equation says that the number of observable civilizations in our Milky Way (N) is a multiplication of:

  • The rate at which stars in the Milky Way are born each year (R) x
  • The fraction of these stars that have planets (fp) x
  • The average number of Earthlike planets around that star (ne) x
  • The fraction of those planets where life actually takes hold (fl) x
  • The fraction of those planets where intelligence life develops (fi ) x
  • The fraction of those intelligent life forms that develop radio communication that can cross space (fc ) x
  • The average lifetime of these intelligent civilizations (L).

Some estimates using the Drake Equation show that the nearest intelligent life would be around 500 light-years away, too far to have a friendly chat, but close enough to possibly receive a signal.

And we are getting closer all the time. While working at Ohio State University’s Big Ear Radio Telescope in 1977, Jerry Ehman received a signal 30 times more powerful than normal. Ehman circled the data on the sheet and wrote, “Wow!” Since then, the occurrence has been dubbed the “Wow Signal.”  However, the signal was never detected again.

SETI Global Efforts

Over the years, a number of SETI projects around the world have been conducted. Some are ongoing, or have ended operations for various reasons. They include:

  • Project Beta, an undertaking at Harvard University and funded by a private organization called The Planetary Society, stopped operations in 1999 due to telescope damage from a wind storm.
  • A volunteer group conducted a search at Ohio State University for 24 years. That operation finished in 1997 when the university closed the radio telescope.
  • Current optical SETI programs are being conducted at Harvard University and Cal Berkeley’s Leuschner Observatory.
  • Additional searches are being conducted in Australia and Italy.
  • Several individual scientists and radio amateurs in various countries around the world are running small scale efforts.

What Is SETI@home?

SETI@home handles around 3 percent of the data processing of SERENDIP IV, a search conducted by the Arecibo Observatory located in Puerto Rico. Project participants install a special screen saver on their work or home computer (to date none of the participating computers are Apple products). When the computer is not being used, the screen saver “phones home,” allowing SETI@home to connect and use the local hard drive’s processing power.

This system overcomes one of the main challenges of supercomputers. Despite the size of the computers at the SETI dish installations, they still didn’t have enough computing power to analyze all the digital data they gather.

While one supercomputer is not enough, thousands of smaller computers combined together have huge processing power. David Gedye, currently Group Program Manager at Bing Mobile, came up with the idea of using interconnected desktop computers, each working on a little bit of data at a time concurrently. In 1995, he created SETI@home to explore the idea, and the project launched four years later.

Join the Team

And we’ve joined the party! RBFTP has created a team to help the SETI@home project and bring us fame and fortune. OK, may just some fame. There’s no money involved, but you can join Team RBFTP Networks, and watch our stats as we compete against other teams to see who contributes the most processing power to SETI@home.

This is your opportunity to join one of the most important scientific efforts in history. It is folly to believe we are alone in the universe. Scientists estimate there are billions of stars in the Milky Way alone! Perhaps our criteria for examining interstellar communication are too strict. For example, SETI says that a signal must repeat. And yet, the “Wow signal” did not repeat. So it is dismissed. How can we dismiss such a powerful indicator?

As the Society for Planetary Defense explains at their website (planeterydefenders.org): “Maybe it’s time to finally give the Wow signal the proper respect it deserves…it certainly fits the profile of an extraterrestrial signal. It just doesn’t repeat. A word that should have never been a part of SETI’s criteria for knocking a signal out of contention. Repetition would be nice, but remember in 1974 our largest radio telescope in Arecibo Puerto Rico beamed out a powerful signal into the cosmos….and never repeated!”

Inner Journey

One of the many reasons we need to confirm life on other planets is because our own origins remain a mystery. By confirming the existence of others “out there,” we can better understand our own existence.

In 2010, The SETI Institute wrote on ScienceBlogs.com, “Today, we still strive to survive but now life has also reached the point where its exploration path has come to question its own origin. Indeed, we do explore to understand where we came from and define the meaning, if any, of this wonderful universal journey of ours. It is fascinating to realize how, as we walk the Earth, the surface of other planets, soon the Milky Way and beyond, that this journey gives greater depth to our consciousness, for exploration is also very much an inward voyage.”

Part of the Solution

Here is how to get involved with Team RBFTP Networks:

  1. Go grab the client by clicking here. We’ll keep you posted on client updates. They’re working on ’em.
  2. Tell yourself that you rule, and that you will smash all the other members of Team RBFTP Networks on our team stats page.

The stats page will also indicate the top members of the team. They shall receive mad props. If you find alien life, and it’s not in New York City, RBFTP Networks will buy you something as a gift.

When you join Team RBFTP Networks, you become part of the solution. It’s an amazing opportunity for individuals to make a real contribution to meaningful scientific and space exploration, and to prove once and for all we are not alone.

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