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SETI@home Expands

The SETI@home project released a major upgrade in October in its quest to scan the sky for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Nearly 2.5 million people have downloaded previous versions of the SETI@home software, which analyzes radio-telescope data for artificial signals from space. Version 3.0 of the software (available at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/) performs a deeper analysis of the faint, cosmic hiss being recorded by the SERENDIP IV SETI receiver on the world’s largest radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

The receiver listens to data from random scans of the sky while the giant, 305-meter dish goes about its other business. A part of this data gets split up into “work units” and sent to volunteers who have installed the SETI@home program on their computers. Your computer analyzes these data whenever in screensaver mode. It then sends back the results and fetches a new work unit the next time you connect to the Internet. The whole process happens very unobtrusively.

Version 3.0 widens the search to look for more complex signals. The prior versions could recognize signals that drift in frequency by up to 10 Hz per second; this has been enlarged to 50 Hz per second, enough to catch signals emitted from a transmitter in orbit around a planet or in some other fast orbit. The new version also searches for pulsed signals, which alien radio astronomers might see as the most efficient way to punch a noticeable signal across interstellar distances.

Since the project began in May 1999, the lab at the University of California at Berkeley has created 63 million work units but has sent out 202 million, including duplicates. The longer processing times required by version 3.0 will put more of the army of volunteers to productive use.

SETI@home was originally scheduled to end after analyzing two years’ of recorded data. This is enough time for much of the sky visible by the Arecibo telescope to be scanned at least three times. But in August the Planetary Society announced that it will finance a continuation of the project into new areas beyond the original time limit. “We’d like to cover more frequencies and more of the sky,” says SETI@home chief scientist Dan Werthimer. Accordingly, SETI@home plans to start analyzing data collected by a radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere starting in 2001, likely from the Southern SERENDIP SETI project under way at the 64-meter Parkes dish in Australia.

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